How Will Loss of Bruce Miller Affect 49ers' Running Game in Playoffs?

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How Will Loss of Bruce Miller Affect 49ers' Running Game in Playoffs?
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In defeating the Atlanta Falcons (4-11) on Monday Night Football, the San Francisco 49ers (11-4) have secured their third consecutive playoff appearance. 

Now, some might point to the inconsistencies displayed this year, or even the fact that the 49ers are entering the playoffs as a wild card, but for what it's worth, this milestone marks progress. 

We shouldn't forget how putrid the 49ers looked prior to the Trent Baalke/Jim Harbaugh era. This was a team living through its past glory. 

Now? Well, this team could make history of its own. 

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they'll have to do it without star fullback Bruce Miller.

Wait, what? Why is a fullback being mentioned as a key contributor? Well, because Miller is a key contributor in every sense of the word. 

Let's explore how his absence will affect the 49ers running game going forward. 

 

1. Run 'Heavy'

When we think of the 49ers, physicality is the first word that comes to mind. Usually, we can associate physicality with a strong defense or ferocious rushing attack. Luckily, the 49ers possess both. 

Many a times, I've seen fans and analysts brand the 49ers as a read option or pistol team. While the 49ers incorporate these schemes within their vast playbook, the lions share of their offense revolves around their   power run game. 

Let's take a look at where the 49ers stand among other run heavy teams. 

Top Rushing Teams (Attempts)
Team Attempts Att/G
Buffalo Bills 460 32.9
Seattle Seahawks 453 32.4
San Francisco 49ers 452 32.3
Carolina Panthers 436 31.1
Philadelphia Eagles 430 30.7

2013 Season (per NFL.com)

In analyzing this chart, its obvious the 49ers are one of the more run-heavy units in the league. While I don't applause their efficiency this year (4.2 yards per carry) compared to last season (4.8 YPC), this is still a team that understands its identity, despite criticism to the contrary.

What's this have to do with Miller?

Well, when your fullback plays 60 percent of all of your snaps, his absence will begin to show on film.    

In today's pass-happy league, you don't really see a ton of throwback fullbacks in the mold of Miller. Now, we do see more pseudo fullbacks who are really classified under the "H-back" or "joker" category. 

This somewhat leads me into my next discussion. 

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

 

2. Versatility 

Just above, I mentioned how Miller can be classified as a throwback at his position; however, I didn't mention his versatility as well. 

Miller isn't an "H-back," but he is a moving chess piece, in a sense. With traditional fullbacks in the lineup, opposing defenses tend to ignore their ability to be receivers out of the backfield and for good reason.

With Miller, his agility and short-area quickness make him a dangerous threat as a pass-catcher. Believe it or not, Miller was a defensive end in college, which makes his success as a receiver that more surprising. 

With the departure of do-it-all tight end Delanie Walker in the offseason, someone had to become an extra safety valve for Colin Kaepernick.

That guy this year was Bruce Miller.

Bruce Miller Receiving Stats
Year Catches Rec. Yards
2011 11 83
2012 12 84
2013 25 243

2011-2013

As you see in the graphic above, Miller's role as a receiver increased with the absence of Delanie Walker this year. His versatility allows him to play many roles.

You see, he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but his ability to catch the football allows the 49ers to run a variety of formations, whether it be in the I-formation, pistol and/or read-option. 

NFL Game Rewind
49ers vs. Jaguars (Week 8)

In the photo above, you see the 49ers with an unbalanced line to the right, with the Jaguars oblivious to Miller, who is split wide to the right, up against the sideline.

NFL Game Rewind
49ers vs. Jaguars (Week 8)

The result of the play? A 43-yard gain to a wide-open Miller.

While some would point to the Jaguars ineptitude on this play, I say give credit to the 49ers coaching staff for recognizing Miller's versatility and exploiting an undisciplined defense.  

 

3. Blocking 

While Miller has shown to be threat as a receiver, his high snap count is due mostly to his tenacious blocking.

What teams want from a fullback is a physical presence in the trenches. Miller is that and much more. When you see a big 49ers run, Miller is usually involved in the play one way or another. 

NFL Game Rewind
49ers vs. Rams (Week 4)

As you see in this photo, the 49ers are lined up in 22 personnel (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR), looking for a big gain on the ground. 

NFL Game Rewind
#49 Bruce Miller makes a successful block at the second level

Two key blocks are made on this designed "wham" play. The first key block occurs when No. 89 Vance McDonald completes a successful wham block on the Rams nose guard. 

The second block, made by Miller (No. 49) was the one that freed up Frank Gore for a successful 27-yard run. Miller is exceptional when it comes to making blocks at the second level of a defense, as he did on this play. 


In such a pass-happy league, it's refreshing to see a throwback fullback with the ability to make blocks in the open field.  

Miller won't get the awards or recognition he deserves, but make no mistake about it, the third-year player out of the University of Central Florida will certainly be missed from this 49ers offense.  

Plenty of questions still need answers in the wake of his absence. Should the 49ers use more three-receiver sets? Will Anthony Dixon get a fair shake at fullback? How will Miller's absence affect Kaepernick's protection?

Through all this chaos, I didn't even mention Miller's value on special teams.

At this point, we'll have to wait until the playoffs to see just how much Miller's absence will affect the 49ers.

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