Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde Must Be 49ers' Offensive Focus to Return to NFC EliteNovember 14, 2014
Through nine games of this season, San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore has just 139 rushing attempts.
At 31 years of age, the 49ers appear adamant about the idea of phasing Gore out and moving forward without him. Gore's natural replacement is rookie Carlos Hyde, but Gore's lack of carries hasn't led to increased opportunities for the former Ohio State runner.
Gore is averaging 15.4 carries per game, a career low if you discount his rookie season when he wasn't a full-time starter. Only twice before this season has Gore ever averaged below 17 carries per game over a season.
Instead, the 49ers have attempted to move more of the workload onto quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick has attempted 289 passes, run 58 times and been sacked 31 times. His averages through nine games project to 672 dropbacks over a full 16-game regular season. Using the same criteria for last season, Kaepernick dropped back 547 times, 125 times fewer than his projected outcome this year.
Now, Kaepernick's increase in workload could partially be attributed to the state of the 49ers defense this season. While dealing with injuries and a suspension to Aldon Smith, the 49ers defense has ranked eighth in DVOA this season, but that is actually an improvement over where it ranked for the full season last year.
Explaining away Gore's usage as simply a part of how the 49ers' games have developed this year isn't an easy argument. When you break down when he has got his carries this year, it's clear that the 49ers simply chose not to put the ball in his hands in the way they have in previous seasons.
|Gore's Carries Broken Up By Quarter|
|Game||Quarter 1||Quarter 2||Quarter 3||Quarter 4|
|Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com|
Gore is averaging just 3.4 carries in the first quarter of games, 3.8 for every second quarter, 4.3 for every third quarter and 3.9 for every fourth quarter. Those numbers mean that Gore is averaging 7.2 carries per first half of games and 8.2 in the second.
In 15 of the team's 36 quarters so far this season, Gore has carried the ball three or fewer times.
The 49ers aren't simply falling behind early on in games and having to abandon the run during the second half when they throw the ball to try and catch up. Instead, they are ignoring Gore early on and using him more in the second half, with most of his carries coming in the third quarter of games.
That suggests that the offense is adjusting at half time, realizing that their initial approach to games isn't working as well as it should.
As a result of all that, the 49ers offense ranks 20th in the NFL by DVOA this season, per Football Outsiders. DVOA measures efficiency on a play-by-play basis, and when you break the offense down into passing and running, it becomes clear that the 49ers need to run more. The 49ers running game ranks ninth in DVOA, while the passing attack ranks 23rd.
Kaepernick has excelled in the past in an offense that used the run to establish the offense.
When Gore was being effective on first and second downs, or when the offense understood his threat as a runner, it became easier for Kaepernick to throw the ball to his first read underneath or take a preferable shot downfield. That situation takes pressure off of the quarterback in the pocket.
With added pressure in the pocket this season, Kaepernick's limitations have been put on show. Solving Kaepernick's discomfort should be simply a matter of making better use of Gore and Hyde—using those two backs behind a healthier offensive line to establish the passing attack.
Against the New Orleans Saints last week, Gore compiled 22 rushing attempts through the first four quarters of the game before carrying the ball once in overtime. In overtime, the 49ers made use of Hyde's fresh legs on three carries for 27 yards after scoring a touchdown with his first touch in the first quarter.
Earlier in the first quarter, after a turnover, Gore scored the opening touchdown of the game.
Having carried the ball for five and then three yards on successive plays, Gore lined up next to Kaepernick in the backfield on the following play. The 49ers have spread the field, so the Saints only have seven defenders in the box to work against the 49ers' six blockers.
This setup gives Gore more space to work in from the very start of the play.
At the snap, the left side of the 49ers offensive line blocks down to seal the edge, but they leave one defender unblocked to that side of the field. To account for that defender, the 49ers pull not one but two players from the other side of the field to lead block for Gore.
Gore isn't certain of getting the football because Kaepernick appears to be reading the defense. Kaepernick's actions hold the backside defender on the second level.
As he has proven over the course of his career, Gore is an exceptionally smart runner. He understands how to find holes and create space with his movement, but most importantly, he understands how to manipulate defenders and time his cuts to best take advantage of their positioning.
On this play, Gore initially attacks the interior of the defense, but he quickly plants his foot to cut back outside where there is space.
That space gives him an easy touchdown score with one spare blocker, Vernon Davis, who is in position to pick up any potential late tackle attempt. Davis doesn't pick up any defender, as Gore is able to slip past a desperate tackle from a defensive back coming off the edge.
After scoring that touchdown, Gore carried the ball six times for 20 yards on the following drive. Each of those runs went between the tackles, before Hyde came in to score a nine-yard touchdown on an outside toss play.
Hyde doesn't need to replace Gore for his touches. The duo complement each other very well, and the 49ers should focus their offensive game plan around their abilities. Even though Hyde has more explosiveness and ability on outside runs than Gore, he is more than capable of running between the tackles too. Gore may be older now, but he also isn't limited to being just a between-the-tackles runner.
Wearing the defense down with Gore, then wearing them out with Hyde is an approach that makes sense for the 49ers personnel. When you add in Kaepernick's dynamic athleticism and the versatility of the team's offensive linemen, this should be a top-five rushing attack in the NFL rather than barely a top-10 one.
Early on in this game, it appeared that the 49ers were set on building their offense through running. While they didn't focus completely on running the ball on their second drive, they did move away from it even more as the game evolved.
While the 49ers didn't completely focus on running the ball early in the game, they did move away from it more as the game evolved.
Gore had 23 total carries, but 15 of those came in the first half and nine in the first quarter. While he wasn't carrying the ball in the second half, neither was Hyde. Through nine games this season, Hyde has 54 carries for 214 yards and three touchdowns. He is averaging 4.0 yards per carry on six carries per game.
In overtime, Hyde showed the 49ers what they had been missing by only giving him one carry during the first four quarters of the game.
Throughout this game, the 49ers used a lot of pre-snap motion and pulling linemen to try and create space against the Saints front seven. For Hyde's first carry of overtime, they did use pre-snap motion, but there wasn't any more misdirection.
By formation alone, the 49ers created a good situation for Hyde to run off of left tackle.
After motioning Vance McDonald to the left side of the formation, the 49ers are able to set up a four-on-four situation to the left side of their offense. Because they are going to run immediately off of left tackle, the rest of the defense and offensive line doesn't factor into the initial stages of the play.
The execution of the left side of the 49ers offense on this occasion is exceptional. After initially doubling on the defensive linemen, to set up better leverage for the one-on-one blocks that they would become, McDonald and left guard Mike Iupati advance downfield to pick up linebackers in space.
McDonald, being a tight end, is naturally athletic enough to do this comfortably, while Iupati is one of the more athletically gifted left guards in the NFL.
Outstanding blocks from McDonald and Anquan Boldin create a wide running lane for Hyde to attack outside. With a clean path to the outside, the rookie running back is able to show off his acceleration to quickly attack the space on the second level.
That space leads to a 15-yard gain that could have been much greater if he had succeeded in making a defender miss in space down the field. Hyde followed that play up with a nine-yard gain off left tackle before a three-yard gain up the middle to convert for another first down.
Once Gore was stopped for no gain on the following play, the 49ers immediately went back to passing the ball and were forced to punt.
It should be noted that the Saints were relatively resilient against the run in this game. They stopped Gore at or behind the line of scrimmage on four separate occasions. Even considering that, the running game was significantly more reliable than the passing game.
Despite throwing the ball 32 times, Kaepernick compiled just 210 passing yards and a touchdown on 14 completions. A huge percentage of his yardage came on three completions, one 51-yarder to Michael Crabtree at the very end of the fourth quarter on 4th-and-10, one 25-yarder to Anquan Boldin, who struggled in this game, and one 20-yarder to Steve Johnson.
Furthermore, Kaepernick was sacked four times and lost a fumble at the start of a drive in the second quarter.
That fumble came on a 1st-and-10 play—one of 11 passing plays the 49ers called on first downs that came after the first quarter and before overtime. That stretch captures the current problems of the 49ers' approach on offense, as they should be running the ball close to twice as often as they did on those 1st-and-10 plays.
After the first quarter, the 49ers called a passing play to start their drives on six of 10 occasions, discounting a kneel down at the end of the second quarter. Hyde wasn't given a rushing attempt, while Gore was largely being used as a complementary piece rather than a tone setter.
As has happened so often this season, this forced Kaepernick out of his comfort zone and disrupted the whole flow of the offense.
Most of the 49ers' offensive issues this year are self-inflicted. It may be more prudent to point to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who is responsible for play-calling and determining the identity of the offense. There could be many reasons for Roman's approach.
The 49ers as a whole may be expecting too much from Kaepernick based on the idea of him developing into a more well-rounded quarterback. Roman or Jim Harbaugh may be forcing the passing game because of their new receivers, or they may simply feel that Gore and the offensive line aren't their best avenue to success.
Whatever their reasons are, the 49ers need to change their approach and go back to focusing on the run. They need to make Gore and Hyde the focal points of their offense.