Have no fear, San Francisco 49ers fans, Carlos Hyde is here.
Yes, it was only two drives in a forgettable preseason opener, but Hyde’s NFL debut couldn’t have gone much better. More than any other player on either team, Hyde had a phenomenal night on Thursday, going for 39 yards on only five carries against the Baltimore Ravens’ first-team defense.
It’s tempting to be pessimistic about the game overall, as the 49ers lost 23-3. However, you have to realize that seven defensive starters missed this game—Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Glenn Dorsey, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith and Tramaine Brock. The backup defensive front seven couldn’t do much against the starting Baltimore offense, which is to be expected—otherwise, they would be the starting defensive front seven.
Let’s stick with optimism, then, and go back and look at Carlos Hyde’s debut. With Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James going down with injuries, and Marcus Lattimore not yet cleared for action, Hyde has both the opportunity and responsibility to earn the number two running back spot. He delivered in spades in his first game action.
Let’s go back and look how Hyde did on every snap he was actually involved in, all of which came in the first quarter against most of Baltimore’s starting defense. You can see a full highlight reel of Hyde’s day here to see a couple of the runs if you missed them last night, but here’s the play-by-play breakdown.
1st-and-10, SF 27 (15:00): C. Hyde left guard to SF 34 for seven yards (C. Mosley; J. Bynes)
Hyde gets a huge hole on the left side as Mike Iupati and Joe Staley explode to the second level. Hyde can’t quite break an arm tackle by Mosley as he crashes into the block after seven yards, but you’re never going to complain about a seven-yard gain on first down.
1st-and-10, SF 49 (14:15): C. Kaepernick pass short right to V. McDonald to BLT 34 for 17 yards (M. Elam)
Hyde gets a play fake here to try and draw the attention away from McDonald coming out of the backfield. The play works because rookie C.J. Mosley slips trying to cover McDonald, rather than anything Hyde does.
One for the highlight reel, here. For the first time, the 49ers line up in one of their staple sets, with fullback Bruce Miller coming out to pave the way for Hyde. Vernon Davis and Stevie Johnson help seal the edge, and Miller destroys safety Darian Stewart, allowing Hyde acres of space to roam down the left side.
It’s great to see Miller back in game shape, and he makes this run very easy for Hyde—all he had to do was turn the corner, and the first down was already sewn up. Hyde also took a shot from Matt Elam on the sideline, but showed his strength by staying upright as he was knocked out of bounds.
1st-and-10, BLT 15 (13:05): C. Hyde left guard to BLT 7 for eight yards (C.Mosley)
It didn’t gain as many as the previous play, but this was probably Hyde’s best run on the night.
For the second play, Hyde lined up with backup tight end Vance McDonald in the backfield, in a weak-side I-formation. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s a wrinkle that’s used in the regular season. McDonald picks up a block on Terrell Suggs, but Suggs is able to close the gap straight ahead.
So what does Hyde do? He bounces the ball to the outside, around Stevie Johnson’s block, and pulls down eight yards. Hyde’s forte is being a straight north-south runner, but this play showed very good vision and decision-making from the rookie. Had he just followed his blocking, he probably picks up four yards, but he doubles that by making the right decision with the football.
1st-and-10, SF 28 (5:50): C. Hyde right guard to SF 32 for four yards (B. Williams, C. Canty)
It takes until the second drive of the game, but Hyde’s blocking finally fails him. Unlike the left side of the line, stocked with Pro Bowlers Staley and Iupati, the right side of the line here had last year’s backup Joe Looney and Miami castoff Jonathan Martin starting tonight. Looney gets his man a couple yards deep, but Martin’s anchored where he started, resulting in a much smaller crease. Therefore, Hyde just tucks the ball in and plows forward for four yards. Rather than try to make something happen by bouncing the ball outside, Hyde picks his hole and takes what the defense gives him. A solid play.
2nd-and-6, SF 32 (5:16): C. Hyde right guard to SF 33 for 1 yard (C. Mosley)
This is Hyde’s one failed carry of the night. C.J. Mosley blows through a hole between left guard Mike Iupati and center Daniel Kilgore and blows up the play before it can begin. Hyde tries to make a move to the right to get out of it, but just manages to bring the ball back to the line of scrimmage. A nothing play.
3rd-and-5, SF 33 (4:40): B. Gabbert pass short left to S. Johnson to SF 39 for six yards (J.Smith)
Again, C.J. Mosley comes free, but this time, Hyde picks him up and knocks him out of the play, allowing Blaine Gabbert to get a rare completion. Pass-blocking is so key for rookie running backs. It’s obvious that a college back's skills as a runner can for the most part translate easily to the pros, but the ability to recognize and pick up NFL blitzes is a difficult skill to learn—and it’s one Hyde wasn’t asked to use very much at Ohio State.
It’s his ability to make plays like this one, keeping his quarterback upright, that will encourage the 49ers to trust Hyde in every-down situations. If Hyde blows that block, Gabbert’s crushed, and it’s a three-and-out for the 49er offense.
Hyde's final stat line? Five carries, 39 yards, for an average of 7.8 yards per carry, as well as one successful blitz pickup. Six of the seven plays he was involved in ended up with positive outcomes, with only the one-yard rush standing out as an unsuccessful play. It was an impressive debut for the rookie—all that was missing was a chance to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Colin Kaepernick joined the crowd praising Hyde after the game, mentioning him in his postgame press conference.
Kaepernick: "Carlos Hyde looked really good... I thought our offensive line did a good job on that first drive." #49ers— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 8, 2014
As for Hyde? He seemed calm, cool, and collected after the game.
“I'm a big competitor, man. I never want to get out of the game competing, scratching, fighting for extra yards,” Hyde continued at his press conference. “Whatever it is, I want to win. I thought I'd play a little more than I did. We're down running backs right now...so I didn't play as much. Which is good. We've got a long season ahead.” (per The Sacramento Bee).
If Hyde can bring half of what he did on Thursday night, he’ll be a key contributor in that long season. While the final three quarters of the football game were forgettable from an offensive point of view, Hyde’s performance on the first two drives was a great start to what looks to be a promising NFL career.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter