San Francisco, using the three-headed rushing attack of Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, and Tevin Coleman, consistently ran their opponents into the dirt en route to a 13-3 record and an upcoming Super Bowl trip against the Kansas City Chiefs.
During the regular season, the 49ers averaged 144.1 yards per game. Here’s how the 49ers’ top three backs fared on the stat sheet:
- Mostert: 137 carries, 772 yards, 5.6 average, 8 touchdowns
- Breida: 123 carries, 623 yards, 5.1 average, 1 touchdown
- Coleman: 137 carries, 544 yards, 4.0 average, 6 touchdowns
The running backs didn’t get there on their own, though. They got assistance from a stellar offensive line and some of the best lead blockers in the NFL. Tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are the two who make the biggest impact, but head coach Kyle Shanahan puts an emphasis on his receivers blocking, too.
The result has been impressive, with receivers like Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, second-string tight end Ross Dwelley, and even quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo laying out punishing blocks this season.
Garoppolo only attempted eight passes in the 49ers’ 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Sanders and Bourne each saw only one pass thrown his way, while Samuel had three. None of the four were upset about their lack of stats in the game, however.
“I told myself, if I’m not going to get the ball, I might as well go out here and be a bully,” Sanders said after the game. “I kind of turned into a bully, I started to enjoy blocking.”
The 49ers have had plenty of “bully” moments this season, and they’ll be hoping to have more against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Kansas City has effectively stopped the run in the postseason so far, but the 49ers present a very tough challenge.
What the 49ers did to the Packers is a perfect example of their “everyone blocks” attitude
The 49ers’ running game hit another level against the Packers. They ran the ball 42 times for 285 yards; Mostert alone had 29 carries for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
While that signifies a strong personal effort from Mostert, he had plenty of help. Let’s get into our first key block of that game, which features Samuel, Juszczyk, and Kittle all contributing.
Two extremely important blocks happened immediately: the first was Juszczyk getting right in there and blocking No. 55, Za’Darius Smith, one of Green Bay’s top run stuffers who almost certainly would have stopped Mostert for a loss. The other was Samuel following his defensive back, No. 23 Jaire Alexander, all the way around to eventually block him into the ground.
Mostert made the perfect cut and took the lane created by Kittle and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. Kittle was on No. 93, linebacker B.J. Goodson, who didn’t get any forward push AT ALL as Kittle blocked him into oblivion.
Our next big block came later in that same drive, courtesy of both Samuel and Dwelly.
Samuel ran the fake reverse to set this up — an important note because the 49ers use the rookie as their gadget-type player and he typically gets one decent reverse a game. Here, he ran the fake and collided with No. 26, Darnell Savage, hard enough to knock the Packers safety off balance. There was also Dwelley in the interior pile, stumbling out of it to block No. 31, Adrian Amos, the guy with the next-best chance to tackle Mostert.
That touchdown gave the 49ers a 17-0 lead in the game. Blocks from Kittle and Bourne would set up their next touchdown, also a run from Mostert:
At the start of this play, you’ll see Kittle had the edge on the top of the screen, where he sealed out Za’Darius Smith. The final 49ers player that Mostert ran past was Bourne, who pushed his man a good 6-7 yards off the snap. Bourne disengaged at JUST the last moment before a holding penalty might have been called, too.
That 18-yard touchdown put the 49ers up 27-0.
So far we’ve seen just about everyone get in on a block, but not much of Sanders. He helped seal off one of those Samuel reverses:
Sanders, No. 17, was working on No. 91, linebacker Preston Smith, who clearly saw that it was going to be a reverse. It wasn’t a huge, punishing block, but Sanders got in Smith’s way enough that he had no chance of stopping Samuel on the play. You can also see McGlinchey and center Ben Garland making blocks in the open field at the end.
But it’s how Shanahan used Juszczyk on this play that sticks out the most. Juszczyk ran my absolute favorite type of block: the wind-back block. Just like a misdirection run, Juszczyk started to the left to sell the fake, then flipped around to hit No. 38, Tramon Williams, in space.
No defensive back in the league can handle that, and Williams could only watch as Samuel broke free for 32 yards.
The 49ers have been doing this all year, in the regular season and playoffs
While the running game didn’t lead the way in every outing, they 49ers have been laying these kinds of blocks all season.
The wind-back block in particular is something the 49ers have used before to great effect. Let’s look at their Week 14 game against the Saints to show you another one.
Again, this was a Samuel reverse with a fake to the running back first. Instead of Juszczyk, this time it’s Kittle who ran the wind-back block. Kittle ran through his blocker, which gave Samuel the edge, freeing him for a big gain.
Notice Sanders and Bourne making blocks, too. Bourne was in the scrum in the middle, while Sanders went ahead to stall one of the linebackers. The 49ers’ 48-46 win was helped mightily by 162 yards on the ground and Kittle’s ability to absolutely run over guys.
We’ve looked at blocks with all of the key players except one: Garoppolo. If we go back to the Divisional Round, we can see a good one:
This was a more intricate play than the others because it looked like an option. After Garoppolo handed it to Juszczyk, he had the option to run it himself, pass it to Samuel, or dump it to Coleman.
You can tell it’s an option because when Garoppolo turned around, he wasn’t sure if he should be blocking to his right or his left. He saw it went to Samuel, and got out there in space to block Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr all the way to the ground, allowing Samuel pick up a decent gain.
The 49ers’ running game finished with 186 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-10 victory over the Vikings.
The 49ers have the right blocking mentality. Can the Chiefs stop them?
Shanahan expects everyone to block, and the 49ers have a philosophy built around everyone contributing however they can. In practice, 49ers coaches are encouraged to call out receivers who don’t give 100 percent in their blocking.
“I think it’s just holding people accountable from the beginning,” Shanahan said. “Then you just set a standard as it is and every time you watch tape you point it out. Some people don’t point it out very much and don’t think you can get that out of wideouts, but that’s what we do from the first play that we’re with someone until the last play.”
They’ve created a culture where Kittle, one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, is always eager to block (remember the pancake block against the Falcons where he’s LAUGHING the entire time?). He’s easily the 49ers’ most important weapon in the receiving and blocking game, and he’s not worried about how he helps the team, either.
“Kittle, everyone knows what he’s done in the pass game, but he has never once in three years came up to me during a game and said ‘Hey I need this route or Hey we’ve got to do this,’” Shanahan said. “He’s never once came up to me about a pass play, but he comes up to me about every seven plays about what type of run play we need to do, who we need to allow him to hit, things like that. It makes it very fun to call plays for him.”
The 49ers will face a game opponent in the Chiefs, though.
The Chiefs allowed a lot of rushing yards this season — 128.2 per game, 26th in the league — and 4.9 yards per carry (fourth-worst). However, they’ve clamped down in the playoffs. First, they went up against Deshaun Watson, Carlos Hyde, and Duke Johnson in the Divisional Round, and held them to under 100 yards.
Much more impressive than that is how they handled Derrick Henry and the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. Henry went into that matchup having rushed for 195 yards against the Ravens in the Divisional Round, and 182 yards against the Patriots in the Wild Card Round. But the Chiefs stacked the box and held Henry to jut 69 yards on 19 carries.
Conquering the 49ers’ run blocking schemes requires more than stacking the box. The Chiefs will go into the Super Bowl knowing that everyone on the San Francisco offense is a threat to seal off a big run. While the 49ers’ running game is their most difficult task yet, the Chiefs have been clearing the rushing challenges ahead of them lately. Can they keep it up?
All we know for sure is that the 49ers will be ready — and willing — to deliver punishing blocks when it’s their turn to test Kansas City’s rush defense in the Super Bowl.