Ever since head coach Jim Harbaugh took over in San Francisco, the 49ers have become one of the run-heaviest teams in the NFL. Over the course of 48 regular-season games, under his watch, they’ve run the ball 1,495 times.
Surprisingly, that’s not the league’s highest mark during that 48-game span. Yet, it’s a good indicator as to why they’ve been incredibly successful following Harbaugh’s inception.
In San Francisco’s run-heavy attack, running back Frank Gore has been selected to the Pro Bowl three years in a row, he has garnered 3,553 yards rushing, scored 25 touchdowns and forced 88 missed tackles. Those are extraordinary numbers based on Gore’s age and his declining skill set.
However, all of Gore’s glory doesn’t fall on his shoulders. Without top-notch offensive linemen, the 30-year-old tailback wouldn’t have been able to sustain his high level of play. Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis have contributed to his achievements over the years.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Staley, Iupati, Goodwin and Davis have amassed a plus-123.7 run-blocking grade since the start of the 2011 season. Amid that three-year stretch, the only player to post a negative run-blocking grade was Davis.
He was awarded a negative-1.2 grade in 2011.
In all fairness to him, players struggle to accumulate lofty grades as rookies. It takes time for young offensive tackles to come into their own. The speed and size of opposing defenders at the pro level often makes the transition from the college ranks tough.
Nonetheless, Davis and the rest of the hog mollies upfront have the opportunity to show the masses that their play in the trenches will decide the 49ers’ fate against the Green Bay Packers. If San Francisco wants to secure a wild-card victory at Lambeau Field, they will have to pound the rock and control the clock.
The good news is the Niners have used this strategy in the past to take down the Packers. When these two teams met in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a beautiful game. His offense recorded 323 yards rushing, averaged 7.5 yards a carry and found the end zone on four separate occasions.
Of the team’s 323-yard rushing output, quarterback Colin Kaepernick tallied 181 yards on the ground, thanks in large part to the read option, while Gore added 119 yards of his own.
Even though it’s safe to assume Kaepernick’s numbers won’t be replicated this time around, Gore has the ability to impact Sunday’s game in a profound way for the second time in as many years. Why? Because the Packers front seven is downright depressing.
Green Bay finished the season as the eighth-worst defense against the run, it surrendered 125 yards rushing per contest and it allowed 16 runs of 20 yards or more. That was the third-worst mark in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears were the only teams to give up more runs of 20 yards or more.
Additionally, three members of the Packers front seven graded out above average versus the run, per PFF. Defensive end Mike Daniels turned in a plus-8.5 grade, outside linebacker Clay Matthews registered a plus-2.9 rating and nose tackle Ryan Pickett finished with a plus-0.5 grade.
Daniels’ matchup with Iupati and right guard Alex Boone will prove to be must-see TV, yet things could get ugly for the Packers when the 49ers run to the left side of the formation. Matthews has been ruled out with a thumb injury, and Gore averages 5.4 yards a carry off of Staley’s backside.
On a per-carry basis, 5.4 yards a pop is a good chunk of real estate. Yet don’t be surprised if Gore’s per-carry average shoots up and approaches six yards an attempt. Matthews’ replacement, Andy Mulumba, is an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan.
As of late, he has struggled to get off blocks, he looks weak at the point of attack and his run-gap fills are flawed.
Against the Bears, Week 17, left tackle Jermon Bushrod had one of his better games of the season versus Mulumba. When running back Matt Forte rushed behind Bushrod, he rattled off an 11-yard run, scored one touchdown and forced a missed tackle.
Chicago should have continuously exploited that mismatch. Instead, it ran the ball at Mulumba six measly times. Don’t expect the 49ers to make the same mistake the Bears did. Coach Harbaugh and San Francisco’s offensive staff have a keen eye for picking up opponents' weaknesses on tape.
This, in turn, means the Niners should recognize the Packers’ deficiencies at left outside linebacker as well. Like Mulumba, Mike Neal has had his fair share of problems against the run. Of the 16 regular-season games he appeared in, he received a negative run grade from the folks at PFF 10 different times.
Furthermore, he’s coming off of his most disappointing outing of the season. When the Bears attacked Neal in the run game, they picked up 42 yards on four rushes. Obviously, no two games are played the same, yet it’s evident Green Bay falters on edge runs to the outside.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been around the NFL for a long time, which is why he will do his best to make the necessary adjustments for Sunday’s game. Unfortunately, there’s only so much a coordinator can do. His players are still required to make plays. And right now his players, especially the outside linebackers, aren’t making enough plays.
The Packers will hang tough and put points on the board, because of All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but this game is setting up quite nicely for the 49ers. If Vic Fangio’s defense holds up its end of the bargain, the offense should be in firm control of the game from start to finish.
Yet, if San Francisco falls behind and is forced to play catch-up, the momentum of the game could favor Green Bay. Gore and the offensive line have to do everything in their power to ensure Rodgers and the Packers offense possess the ball as little as possible.
By doing so, the 49ers can play a hand in determining their own fate. All they have to do is play keep-away and wear down the Packers defense with their rushing attack.