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Niners Offense Still Starts with Running Game

Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

It seems the San Francisco 49ers haven’t missed a beat since their 13-3 turnaround season last year, steamrolling their competition in the past two weeks and notching victories over the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to tally their record to 5-1.  Though, it’s come with a well-balanced defense and a vastly improved passing game, they’re biggest and, quite possibly, best attribute still lies in their golden ground game.

The Niners have tallied an impressive 29.8 points per game — fourth in the league — and it’s paced by Frank Gore and the NFL’s best rushing attack.

The idea that the passing game opens up the running attack is the perfect ying to its yang.  Last year, the Niners were content with handing the ball off to Gore in hopes he would gain 2 or 3 yards per carry and break open a big run at least once per half.  Now, San Francisco has consistently stringed big runs together over the full length of the game, surpassing 200 yards in two contests so far.  As of this week, they’ve average 6.1 yards per run (1st in NFL) compared to 4.1 (19th) last year.  The runs have also amounted for 33 percent of the team’s first downs (2nd), while 22 percent is the league’s average.

If you look at the advanced saber metrics, which quantifies a team’s performance with adjusted measuring tools, the Niners almost lap the field.  The adjusted line yards (ALY), which measures the quality of the run blocking for a team capping runs more than 10 yards, shows San Francisco (5.34) with a lofty 0.58 yard advantage over the next best team (Seattle Seahawks, 4.76).  If you look further down that list, the next eight teams fall between 4.67 and 4.12.  In laymen terms, the 49ers are one of the best run-blocking team by a wide margin, opening up holes never seen before in league history.  In fact, the next best DLY in NFL history was the Denver Broncos who helped Clinton Portis in 2002 tally a 5.06 ALY.

So how did they do it?

It’s not by mere talent alone.

The Niners have had just about the same mediocre offensive line in the past three years.  The newest additions came in the 2010 draft, when the team nabbed both Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis in the first round, but nothing has changed since.  Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are still tabbed as the run blocking tight ends and Joe Staley and Jonathan Goodwin are the offensive end staples.  The answer is, quite simply, in their coaching.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has masked an above average running team into a historically good ground attack.  In his second year, the former Stanford coach has brewed up the right balance of cohesion and continuity to build their team into one single unit, hinging on all of its parts.  Isn’t that the measure of a great coach?

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