Nearly all of the 49ers’ league rankings are befitting a one-win team.
For example, they rank last in yards allowed and time of possession and first in defensive snaps played and punts attempted.
But there’s an outlier among those meager rankings: San Francisco has the NFL’s fourth-best rushing offense, averaging 127.7 yards a game. A sound ground game is a key to NFL success, and teams that run well typically are among the league’s elite.
Among the top 10 rushing teams this season, the Philadelphia Eagles are the only other squad besides the 49ers with a losing record. They rank 10th in rushing and are 5-7.
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31 49ers’ ranking in passing yardage per game
The past 10 teams to finish fourth in rushing have had a combined 90-69-1 record. Three of them went to the Super Bowl, and two – the 2007 New York Giants and 2013 Seattle Seahawks – won the Lombardi Trophy. The team that lost, the 2012 49ers, went 11-4-1 that season.
Why haven’t the 49ers parlayed their ground game into more than one win?
First, they aren’t a classic rushing team that features a battering-ram fullback, a beefy offensive line or a tailback who’s heading to the Pro Bowl. More than a third of their rushing total has come from their quarterbacks, including Colin Kaepernick, whose 393 yards rank 32nd among all NFL rushers even though his first start came in Week 6.
“I think what it really comes down to is Kap’s ability to run,” tight end Garrett Celek said when asked about the team’s rushing ranking. “He’s a big threat. So when we play teams, I think they have a hard time scheming against that.”
Celek, however, noted the Chicago Bears on Sunday seemed ready for Kaepernick’s runs, keeping their two edge defenders far to the side and funneling running plays to the middle. As a result, Kaepernick ran for a season-low 20 yards.
Another reason for the disparity between running and wins is the 49ers aren’t capitalizing on their ground gains. They have 11 rushing touchdowns, which ranks in the middle of the league. All but one of the other top 10 rushing teams also are in the top 10 for rushing touchdowns. The Houston Texans are the exception.
The 49ers’ quick pace on offense also negates one of the traditional benefits of a strong running game – a well-rested defense. San Francisco’s average time of possession is a league-low 26 minutes, 44 seconds. Not surprisingly, their defense has played a league-high 875 snaps.
127.7 49ers’ rushing yardage per game, fourth in the league
Finally, the 49ers’ running game theoretically is designed to stimulate the passing game by forcing defenses to inch closer to the line of scrimmage. The 49ers, however, rank 31st in passing yards and their play-action game hasn’t resulted in big plays. San Francisco is tied for 30th in pass plays of 20 yards or longer.
“I don’t think you can ever be satisfied. I think you always want to be better,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said when asked if the 49ers have done a good job running. “… We’ve got to think like that. The guys have done a decent job, but our job is to win football games, and we’ve got to do all areas better for us to do that, including running it.”