Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers Running Game

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers Running Game
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick may have rightly garnered the headlines, but the San Francisco 49ers offense still succeeds thanks to its running game. It is a ground attack based on versatility and clever scheming.

A look back at the NFC Championship shows some ways the 49ers create gains in the running game.

In the screen shot below, the 49ers have moved to the Atlanta Falcons 5-yard line. They are showing a two-tight end set with Vernon Davis on the line and Delanie Walker split out on the weak side.

The 49ers intend to skilfully manipulate and overpower the Falcons defensive front.

At the snap the 49ers blocking will take effect. Fullback Bruce Miller will block linebacker Akeem Dent (52). Walker will release on a pass pattern to occupy the safety.

The key to the play will be the inside double-team on defensive tackle Peria Jerry by Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Alex Boone.

At the snap, the blocking scheme works to perfection. Take a look at the screen shot below to see how.

The 49ers have split the defensive front and collapsed one edge. Frank Gore now has a clear path to the end zone.

Perry (94) is neutralized by the initial double-team. That allows Boone to quickly come off the block and attack linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56). This key block is shown in the yellow circle.

As soon as Miller gets his block on Dent (52), running back Frank Gore has a huge rushing lane to attack. The play resulted in an unopposed 5-yard scoring scamper for Gore.

Later in the game, the 49ers were able to create another simple scoring play for Gore. This time the ball is just inside the 10-yard line.

The first thing the 49ers do is use alignment to manipulate the run front. The screen shot below shows how they do it.

By aligning both receivers on one side, the 49ers take a safety away from run support.

They have aligned wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss on the weak side of the formation. Not only does this draw both cornerbacks, it also brings the free safety over to that side, shown in the white circle. That leaves the Falcons with one less force player for run support.

At the line of scrimmage the 49ers again use clever, power-based blocking to split Atlanta's defensive front. The screen shot below details how the blocking will develop.

By executing a simple line shift to the left, the 49ers trap the Falcons and free Gore on the counter.

The 49ers set up a counter for Gore by slanting the left side of their offensive line to the weak side. The next step is to utilize a pulling blocker.

Many power schemes use pulling guards or tackles. However, on this play, offensive coordinator Greg Roman uses the fullback Miller as his pulling blocker. Miller will pull to the strong side and block linebacker Stephen Nicholas (54).

On that same side, tight end Davis has a key role. He must first chip the defensive end to help seal the backside and then release to block the strong safety.

Once the ball is snapped, the line slant traps the Falcons on the weak side. The backside blocking of Davis and Miller then frees Gore on a simple counter the other way.

Gore again has a huge lane to aim for, shown in the screen shot below. He completed a nine-yard run for a decisive touchdown.

The 49ers slant one way to trap the Falcons, while Gore runs a counter through a huge hole.

The 49ers use clever power blocking to open holes for Gore's punishing brand of running. However, their ground attack is also versatile enough to utilize speed.

In the screen shot below, the 49ers have diminutive speedster LaMichael James in for Gore. Again they dictate the direction of coverage and the flow of run support, by aligning both receivers on the same side.

The 49ers again use two receivers to one side to draw focus away from the run.

This time the 49ers need to create room on the edge to allow the fleet-footed James to effectively attack the Falcons.

Again they use a double-team inside and movement on the edge to create an enticing rushing lane. The screen shot below shows how their blocking will develop.

The 49ers again collapse one side of Atlanta's defense, this time to free a runner around the outside.

This time the double-team occurs on the left side. Guard Mike Iupati (77) and Goodwin double-team defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, before Iupati comes off to block the linebacker, Nicholas.

Roman again makes smart use of his fullback. This time Miller will be used to block the rush end on the edge. This will allow left tackle Joe Staley to get out to the second level as a lead blocker.

Thanks to this smart combination blocking, the 49ers free James around the outside. The screen shot below shows how they have given him two clear lanes to attack on the edge.

The 49ers have created two clear rushing lanes on the edge for James to attack.

The success of the play is also helped by the efforts of Crabtree and Moss. The screen shot below shows how they become valuable lead blockers for James in the open field.

Moss and Crabtree help the 49ers win on the edge.

The 49ers have increased the number of ways they use James. His acceleration and moves add an extra dimension to an already potent rushing attack.

 

The Kaepernick Dimension

Speaking of an extra dimension, that's just what Kaepernick has given the NFL's most versatile ground game. The following play from the NFC divisional round shows how dangerous Kaepernick's rushing ability is in the 49ers' schemes.

In the screen shot below, the 49ers again use a two-tight end set to create the matchups they want in the running game.

The 49ers move their tight ends to create a five receiver package and take both safeties away from run support.

They have split Davis and Walker out wide, giving them a five-wide receiver look. This keeps both safeties deep for the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick now has an undermanned run front to attack. To make him even more effective in the open field, Roman again schemes an unexpected lead blocker, shown in the screen shot below.

The 49ers will pull the left tackle to create a lead blocker in space.

Left tackle Staley will pull from the outside through the interior and act as the lead blocker for Kaepernick.

Once the five receivers run the coverage deep and Staley makes his move, the 49ers have created a massive hole for Kaepernick. Look at just how much field Kaepernick has to attack in the screen shot below.

Kaepernick is too quick to be left a hole this big.

This was a planned quarterback run, designed to take advantage of Kaepernick's athleticism. it gained the 49ers 18 yards on 3rd-and-short and set up a key field goal just before halftime.

With Kaepernick under center, any play can be run. Defenses can't afford to sit too deep in coverage, regardless of the situation.

 

Conclusion

The 49ers' running game thrives on smart power-blocking and a versatile set of runners. The real beauty of the scheme is the way the 49ers manipulate run fronts by moving players around.

Roman has also refined power-based schemes by using unlikely player as pulling blockers in space. As a result, the 49ers are able to succeed on the ground, even from multiple receiver formations.

Down and distance and alignments aren't limitations for San Francisco's running game.

Stifling the staple plays of this rushing attack should be the Baltimore Ravens first priority in Super Bowl XLVII.

 

All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.

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