On Sunday, the 49ers rushed eight times for 15 yards and one touchdown (from Trey Lance) in the first half. They rushed 21 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns in total. It was a putrid rushing performance from a team with an identity founded around a strong running game.
To be fair, the 49ers were down to barebones at the running back position. Their lone running back was Trey Sermon, who the 49ers traded up to draft in the third round this year. He carried the ball three times for -1 yards in the first half (two of those carries were blown up by a combination of great defense and poor blocking).
The last two times the 49ers beat the Packers, in Week 12 of 2019 and in the NFC Championship game, they leaned heavily on the running game. Here’s a comparison from Sunday’s game and the last three games the 49ers had against Green Bay:
2019, Week 12, 37-8 win: 12 carries, 70 yards, 1 TD in first half, 22 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs in total
2019, NFC Championship, 37-20 win: 22 carries, 185 yards, 3 TDs in first half, 42 carries, 285 yards, 4 TDs in total
2020, Week 9, 34-17 loss: 9 carries, 37 yards in first half, 12 carries, 55 yards, 1 TD in total
2021, Week 3, 30-28 loss: 8 carries, 15 yards, 1 TD in first half, 21 carries, 67 yards, 2 TDs in total
That is a chasmic drop off in production from when the 49ers held dominion over Matt LaFleur and Green Bay.
So, what was behind that failure to run the ball? George Kittle pointed to the Packers’ approach.
“They were loading the box, they did all they could do to take away our double teams,” Kittle said. “They would set up the defenses to let us have our double team, but then they were setting the edge with two guys, so there was not really much you could do there.”
It stands to reason that if the Packers’ approach stifled the 49ers’ run game — even if it was with a depleted running back corps — other teams will take a note out of that playbook.
Kittle said he expects adjustments in the run game from the coaching braintrust.
“I trust in coach Shanahan and Mike McDaniel to get after that,” Kittle said. “They’ll figure out a way to avoid that next time because I’m assuming a lot of defenses are going to try to do that because they did a good job of eliminating our outside zone.”
If you’re wondering why the 49ers didn’t use Trey Lance in more read-option opportunities, well, you’re not going to be super satisfied with Shanahan’s answer.
The head coach was vague, as you’d expect, especially after a loss, when asked whether the struggles of the running game would be cause to employ Lance more as a runner.
“No, not really,” Shanahan said. “I mean, they’ve got to play it a certain way for Trey to run, you’re not just going to play him like a running back, so that doesn’t really change anything.”
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