Matt Breida grew up studying how Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook operated in pass protection.
The common denominators for both running backs: Neither is very big but both were – in Gore’s case, still is – excellent blockers.
“I would say it comes down to your heart and how bad do you want to block the guy in front of you,” said Breida, a 49ers rookie tailback, on the art of pass protection. “You can be my size and block the guy who’s 250, 260. It’s about how bad you want it.”
Breida measured only 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds heading into the draft. Some evaluators were leery of his size and the run-heavy offense he played in college. But the strides he’s made in picking up blitzing linebackers and safeties has led to a bigger role in the 49ers’ offense as the season’s progressed, one that likely will evolve into a rotation of sorts with starter Carlos Hyde.
Breida, who went undrafted out of Georgia Southern, outplayed Hyde in the most recent game against the Indianapolis Colts and also out-snapped him; he was on the field for 35 snaps Sunday, Hyde had 33.
Coach Kyle Shanahan said Hyde and Breida complement each other similarly to the way his top runners, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, did with the Atlanta Falcons. Last year, the 206-pound Freeman was on the field for 58 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps; the bigger Coleman played 38 percent.
Breida won’t replace Hyde as the starter. But the coaching staff’s confidence in him seems to grow each week.
“I plan on going with Carlos early, and I plan on spelling him with Breida regardless, whether (Hyde’s) doing good or bad,” Shanahan said.
Breida was unrefined in the pass game when he arrived in May because he didn’t do it very much in college. In three seasons at Georgia Southern, he caught 22 passes. He already has eight in five games with the 49ers. A ninth, a touchdown against Cardinals, was called back on a penalty.
“He’s been very good in protections for a guy who’s not very big,” Shanahan said. “He does not flinch. He puts his feet in the ground. He puts his face in people. You have to have that, especially at his size, to have a chance to protect. He’s also a smart guy who works at it, so he’s got his eyes in the right spot.”
The other aspect of the passing game – catching the ball – has come more naturally. Breida always has been fast and, growing up, his coaches usually had him play receiver. Even the coaches at Georgia Southern had him line up in the slot or as a wide receiver from time to time.
“It was more of me being a decoy, but, like I said, I feel comfortable with my hands,” Breida said.
Et cetera – Linebacker Reuben Foster (ankle) and safety Eric Reid (knee) are listed as questionable on the injury report. Both were limited in practice during the week. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (concussion) also is questionable.
▪ Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (back) is out. He’s the only fullback on the roster. The 49ers likely will use more two-tight end formations in Washington or use one of their tight ends as an H-back.
▪ For Washington, cornerback Josh Norman (ribs) will not play while running back Rob Kelley (ankle) is listed as doubtful. Left tackle Trent Williams (knee) is questionable.