LOS ANGELES On the string of burned-out Christmas lights that is the 49ers’ 2016 season, one is glowing softly.
Carlos Hyde needs 50 rushing yards Saturday against the Rams to reach 1,000 for the first time in his three-year career. Since recovering from a midseason shoulder injury that sidelined him for two games, the 49ers tailback has averaged 87 yards a game while San Francisco’s rushing attack has climbed to fourth in the NFL, one of the few things coach Chip Kelly can count as a success in his woeful inaugural season as 49ers head coach.
The inside-outside dynamic between quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Hyde has been particularly effective.
Against the Dolphins on Nov. 27, for example, Kaepernick rushed for 113 yards, and Hyde had 65. Two weeks later, the New York Jets took away Kaepernick’s outside, zone-read runs by spreading their defensive ends wide. The quarterback only gained 23 yards, but New York’s adjustment opened up more room in the middle for Hyde, who ran for a career-high 193 yards.
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“One of the things, when you have a running quarterback, is you create an extra gap for the defense,” Kelly said this week. “So not everybody can gang up on the running back. If you do gang up on the running back, the quarterback can make you pay.”
Said Hyde: “ If they’re out further because of Kap, there should be a seam there.”
Kelly noted that that dynamic has existed all season, including when Blaine Gabbert was the 49ers’ starting quarterback in the first five games. Hyde, however, said the offensive line has improved its run blocking in Kelly’s system as the season has gone on and that he’s gotten better running behind that line.
In his first six games before his injury, Hyde averaged 3.9 yards a carry. In the six games since his return, his average has risen to 5.5 yards a run.
“I definitely see improvement with that,” he said. “Guys are still learning. There’s still a learning curve in there. I think by the time next season comes around, guys will be well-jelled and ready to go.”
Hyde finished his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve with an ankle and foot injury, respectively. This year seemed to be following the same pattern when he left a Week 6 game in Buffalo with a sprained shoulder.
He sat out the next two games with a bye week between them. When Hyde returned in Week 10 against the Cardinals, he acknowledged he was too tentative in rushing 13 times for a season-low 14 yards.
But that has been the lone bad outing on the backstretch of the 49ers’ schedule. Hyde has run so decisively well lately that he was named a second alternate to the Pro Bowl along with offensive left tackle Joe Staley. The 49ers have no Pro Bowl starters for the first time since 2005.
Hyde said the Pro Bowl wasn’t a goal of his when the season began and that he certainly wasn’t content with essentially being voted the fifth-best running back in the NFC.
“I’m not satisfied being an alternate at all,” he said.
Hyde said he entered the season with his sights set on 1,000 rushing yards and winning games. At least one of those goals remains alive.