WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has never left any doubt about his desire to have a dynamic running game.
Like his father — former NFL coach Mike Shanahan — Kyle has long been a proponent of having an offense that spins everything off the run. And the way they’ve done it has constantly evolved.
“Each year there does seem to be a different kind of theme, just speaking for the run game,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said.
Despite losing Raheem Mostert to season-ending knee surgery after two carries in Week 1 against Detroit, the Niners had plenty of success on the ground, rushing 28 times for 131 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
Rookie Elijah Mitchell, who looks poised to get first crack at replacing Mostert, rushed for 104 yards, setting a franchise record for most rushing yards in his NFL debut. JaMycal Hasty and Trey Sermon also figure to get more opportunities as Shanahan continues to simultaneously go with the hot hand and drive fantasy football players to madness.
Even without Mostert, the Niners believe they have the pieces in place to take their run game to another level.
“We have an opportunity to do really well at it,” Shanahan said. “And it’s very important to us to run the ball around here.”
That belief is rooted in an offense with players committed to making the run game go. The offensive line is loaded with former first-round picks at every spot except right guard. Tight end George Kittle and Juszczyk remain constants blocking in space or in line. The receivers are bigger and more physical than any group Shanahan has had in San Francisco. The running back group is a bit unproven but not lacking for talent, even without Mostert.
Beyond all of that, Shanahan and the Niners have something they haven’t had during his five seasons by the Bay: a dynamic running threat at quarterback in the form of rookie Trey Lance.
Since Shanahan arrived in 2017, 49ers quarterbacks rank 29th in the NFL in rushing yards (360) and yards per carry (2.18) in 64 regular-season games. During that same time, the Ravens led the NFL in rushing yards (3,187) and ranked second in yards per carry (5.51) with quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the charge.
Lance could provide similar explosiveness, albeit in smaller doses. He rushed for 1,325 yards and 18 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 19 college games at North Dakota State. And while Lance is still a work in progress as a passer, Shanahan isn’t hesitating to work him in to the offense because of that running threat.
With Lance, the Niners can put defenses in a bind.
“Usually, when a quarterback hands the ball off, you’re playing 10 on 11,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “So, if the quarterback keeps the ball, it’s 11 on 11 and one missed tackle can be a touchdown. I think when you’re running that quarterback dual threat style type of offense, thatâs just one of the caveats that comes with it is the defense has to defend everybody. So, I think that can kind of equate to some instant success.”
Like any new wrinkle, the Lance packages will be something of a work in progress for all involved. Lance gained two yards on three attempts in Week 1. Those growing pains can often pay big dividends.
Never was that more evident than 2019, the best year the Niners had on the ground and, not coincidentally, their best year as a team under Shanahan. Those 49ers ran more gap scheme than his offense ever had. The offensive linemen powered up and drove defenders off the ball in addition to getting out in space and working angles constantly. It often left opposing defenses off balance and the Niners finished second in rushing yards on their way to Super Bowl LIV.
Integrating Lance has challenges of its own. For those doing the blocking, there are new angles to learn and places to reach to make it work, something Kittle has said is not easy in recent weeks. For the running backs, it’s about timing and handling the mesh point correctly when Lance either makes the handoff or pulls it and keeps it. For Lance, it’s about reading the defense, now moving much faster than it did at the FCS level and making the right decision almost instantly.
Even the coaching staff has a bit of a learning curve, though Shanahan and McDaniel at least have their experience with Robert Griffin III and the Washington Football Team to lean on. As a rookie in 2012, Griffin rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns as then-offensive coordinator Shanahan and his staff learned how to use him on the fly.
It was an important inflection point that showed Shanahan and McDaniel how much being willing to evolve could elevate an offense.
“We didn’t have anybody really on our staff that had experienced with any of that stuff,” McDaniel said. “So, we really, as a staff had to kind of piece it together and learn for ourselves, which is the most powerful way to learn. And it really changed the way you look at defensive schemes in general. Itâs not just manifesting itself this year. That’s been our whole career. It kind of opens your mind to how 11 men have to play defense and gap soundness and all sorts of things.”
Beyond Mitchell, Sermon and Hasty at running back, the Niners remain optimistic Jeff Wilson Jr. (torn meniscus) will eventually return to the mix as well. By that time, perhaps Lance is more comfortable as the arrow continues to point up on a running game this team believes has no ceiling.
“Our run game is gonna be crazy,” receiver Deebo Samuel said. “In this offense, thatâs where it starts.”