The undefeated Los Angeles Rams have the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense thanks to star running back Todd Gurley, who’s on pace for 1,660 yards on the ground and should find himself in the MVP conversation at season’s end.
But the 49ers’ running game isn’t far behind. It ranks third averaging 142.5 yards each week, about 12 yards fewer than their division rivals, who come to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.
San Francisco has done it without the star power – and without their expected starter in Jerick McKinnon, who was lost before the season with an ACL injury.
Gurley was prodigious in college at Georgia and was a first-round draft pick. Meanwhile, coach Kyle Shanahan has cultivated the 49ers attack centered on a pair of former undrafted rookies in Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, who could see his role in the offense grow following an encouraging performance on Monday night against the Packers.
“The way he practiced (leading up to the Packers game), it was extremely obvious to all the players and the coaches how locked in he was, how up for the challenge he was,” Shanahan said.
Mostert’s unlikely 87-yard contribution in Green Bay could prove a turning point. He offered a much-needed boost to a unit that relied heavily on Breida to carry the load. But Breida had been dealing with injuries throughout the season and entered the Packers game questionable to play due to an ankle sprain the previous contest against the Cardinals.
The 49ers before Monday struggled in the running game when Breida wasn’t the one carrying the ball. Alfred Morris, the primary backup, was averaging just 3.7 yards per rush, and hadn’t been nearly as effective on the outside zone runs which are vital to Shanahan’s scheme.
So Shanahan decided to do something drastic before taking on the Packers. He challenged Mostert to pick up his game following a discouraging fumble versus Arizona and logging just 11 yards on six carries this season. Mostert received the bulk of the practice reps because Breida was sidelined trying to get healthy.
“He was just like, ‘Raheem, I need to step up and I need you to focus more on ball control. I know you don’t get many reps in practice, but when you do, you got to make those count,’” Mostert said. “And so that’s one thing that we focus on is making my reps actually, fully count, no matter how many reps I got. ... He knows that I can be a better back than what I displayed against Arizona. That was one of the challenges.”
The message apparently hit home. Mostert’s teammates noticed a dramatic improvement from the fourth-year running back on the practice field.
“Once you turned on the film, 31 was all over it,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “The way that he’s hitting the holes, the vision that he has and where he’s coming off blocks and stuff like that, it was just all over the tape last week. We pointed it out in every team meeting. Raheem Mostert was everywhere and he was playing hard and it’s not surprise to us he had the success he had on Monday night because of the way he prepared.”
It led to Mostert splitting time with Breida, helping the running game amass 174 yards against the Packers. Mostert entered the year with eight rushes over his previous three seasons. He’s known more for being one of the league’s premier special teams players.
But if he can continue to rush well, it should help the 49ers play to the offense’s strength: run the ball outside. Because Mostert, unlike Morris, has similar speed to Breida and can use the team’s stout blocking on the edges in a similar fashion.
“I just accepted the challenge. That’s something that I needed, that’s something I wanted to look forward to – and that’s what I did,” Mostert said.
The 49ers are averaging over 5.0 yards per carry on all their outside runs, according to the league’s play direction tracking, and rank in the top-10 in average yardage on runs over left tackle (5.48, eighth), right tackle (5.86, 10th) and outside to the right (5.38, ninth).
Two of San Francisco’s most efficient offensive performances this season came when they ran the ball more than they threw, against Detroit Week 2 and the Packers Week 6. It also helped that they had speedy receiver Marquise Goodwin (126 yards two touchdowns) back against the Packers.
“It always helps when your run game is working well,” said quarterback C.J. Beathard, who had one of the most productive outings of his career at Lambeau Field. “It helps the pass game and when the pass game is working well it helps the run game. They kind of work off of each other so it’s nice when both parts of the offense are working well.”
The 49ers this season are averaging nearly 39 more rushing yards per game than 2017, when Carlos Hyde was the team’s leading rusher. In addition to running back, they’ve made changes at center (Weston Richburg), right guard (Mike Person) and right tackle (McGlinchey), who have all provided upgrades as run blockers.
Additionally, players such as tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are showing a better understanding of their responsibilities in their second season in Shanahan’s system. But it’s also a product of sheer will.
“I think it’s 50-50 in the run game of being talented and just wanting it more than the other guy,” McGlinchey said. “Wanting it more goes from the attitude into the block and it goes from preparation of knowing where guys are going to be. It goes from being able to adjust on the fly and just caring more about the scheme and your preparation than the defense does.”