In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers finished the season with the eighth-best running game in the league. The combination of the 49ers' all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, and rookie overachiever Kendall Hunter proved to be effective. The most potent area of the Niners' offense has been the running game, which is largely a part of the contributions of position coach Tom Rathman.
Entering their 2012 campaign, the 49ers have added weapons and could potentially lead the league in total rushing. For the better part of last season, the ground attack was a well-oiled machine with a lot of moving parts.
After reviewing the game film from the 2011 season, I diagnosed three players who really played an intricate role in San Francisco's success on the ground. In the following slides, we will reveal which members of the Niners' offense are invaluable to the run game.
A former collegiate defensive end looks to be the next best fullback in the NFL. Central Florida's Bruce Miller underwent a serious change when he switched to offense, but it didn't stop him from contributing as a rookie. By Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Miller was starting.
His defensive-minded, hit-something mentality as a fullback brings a whole new level of intensity to a position that has lacked it for years. This guy plays like a wild man on the field, and he has become a very good second-level blocker. Miller consistently makes the initial blow to spring the runner loose, but he often makes his way downfield to hit a second or third defender.
He has the motor of a defensive player.
Miller was able to adjust to the running styles of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter—which are very different—because he has that combination of speed, strength, versatility and intelligence. With Miller at fullback, Gore had a career second-most yards in a season (1,211) in 2011.
Miller is a consistent player that is only getting better and better. And he's tough; he manhandles defenders and punishes whoever is in his tracks. The tutelage from 49ers great and running backs coach Tom Rathman has certainly put the youngster in the right frame of mind. He's got great instincts and is quick off the snap, always making that first collision to try to free the back.
He was a rookie seventh-rounder that made the Pro Bowl as an alternate by the end of the season. In 2012, he could very well be named an All-Pro. With the intensity, consistency and impact Miller brought to the run game last year, San Francisco should be a top-five unit with any improvement.
In regard to the run, the mauling left guard Mike Iupati is perhaps the centerpiece to what the 49ers do strategically. The former first-round selection is arguably the most physical interior lineman in the league right now. Iupati is athletic and extremely powerful, often putting defenders on the ground.
He is the Niners' best pulling guard and they use him as such; Iupati moves around a lot. Whether the 49ers are running right or left, San Francisco wants Iupati as a lead blocker. He pulls from the left guard position as well as anyone in the NFL today, and he brings a real pop to the ground attack.
As someone who is capable of generating so much force, Iupati is vicious at the point of impact. Typically when the 49ers' ground game is flowing, Iupati is having a good game and it's no coincidence. San Francisco has been able to establish its identity as a smash-mouth football team largely in part of Iupati.
This guy is a rugged, blue-collar football player that gets it done for San Francisco and doesn't get enough credit for his contributions to the run game. In goal-line situations, short yardage or fourth-down conversions, Iupati is the clutch offensive lineman the Niners want their tailback behind.
In 2011, Delanie Walker really emerged as a phenomenal run-blocker in the 49ers' scheme. His ability as a run-blocker kept San Francisco in two-tight end sets on a more frequent basis.
A particular niche that Walker found was his impact on inside runs with his wham blocks. The play made it's appearance more than once in the 49ers' regular season, but more notably against the Detroit Lions in Week 6. Walker had gone in motion and twice sprung running back Frank Gore loose for big gains. Walker would put a crack block on an over-pursuing defensive tackle which created lanes for the running back.
Walker also could set the edge, disengage and be a lead blocker going downfield. He is very quick, strong and versatile, which is why is so flexible as an all-around football player. As good as a receiver as he was last year, he was that much more valuable as a run-blocker.
His role is very stealthy and cerebral, but it's effective and invaluable. What he does is selfless, but it's done without hesitation because Walker understands it's for the betterment of the team. Keep a sharp eye on Walker's body of work as a blocker going forward, because his contributions to the run game are significant.
I encourage readers to also review last season's game film on the 49ers' ground attack. The evidence is clear: Bruce Miller, Mike Iupati and Delanie Walker are the nucleus to San Francisco's run game. When the splash plays on the ground occur, it's usually because of one, if not a combination of those three players.
Each one of them plays with high intensity, an unrelenting motor and a knack for physicality. They all greatly contribute to the 49ers' offensive identity and total team philosophy. They want to be a consistent, tough unit that is never really limited against any opponent.
All three players should progress in their respective roles in the running attack, which should ultimately improve the Niners' total offense in 2012.
Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman use Miller, Iupati and Walker like chess pieces—strategically positioning them to help advance on the opponent. Besides Gore and Hunter, newcomers Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James will greatly benefit from having this trio creating opportunities.
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