The 49ers offensive line opens big holes for running backs Kendall Hunter (above) and Frank Gore. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
It’s no secret the 49ers get rich on their running game. The rushing attack is the bedrock of the offense under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and has been since he took command in 2011.
This season, San Francisco ranks No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, with an exceptionally gifted run-blocking line opening holes for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
As the 6-2 Niners prepare to play the 3-5 Rams Sunday at Candlestick Park, San Francisco has rushed for a league-best 168.6 yards per game and a terrific 5.6 yards per attempt.
But those are just numbers.
What does an opposing defender see when the Niners break their huddle and come at him, time and again, behind the blocks of Anthony Davis, Alex Boone, Jonathan Goodwin, Mike Iupati and Joe Staley?
In many ways, it’s football artistry in its highest form. The 49ers, says Rams inside linebacker James Laurinaitis, have a more sophisticated and effective rushing attack than any other team in the league.
He knows he and his teammates – who rank 13th in the league in rushing defense, giving up 105.5 yards per game –will have their hands full trying to get their hands on 49ers running backs.
Laurinaitis this week told Bay Area reporters that the 49ers “throw the house at you” by using “weird” running plays that seem to come out of some video game. The formations and sets, coupled with the great offensive line and innovative play-calling, make for a challenge.
“They’ll do the two backs flat (side by side) with the double sweep, the wide sweep,” he said. “Now they’ll do two-back trap schemes and stuff like that that you don’t see a lot of teams doing any more. Teams will get in the one-back trap and do that, but the Niners will do little triple-trap kind of stuff. It’s actually been quite successful for them.
“You don’t really see a formation anymore where you have two backs lined up at the same depth, side by side. It’s good stuff and they have the personnel to do it because their offensive line can pull and get out there, and when they want to they can just come up and maul you.”
Laurinaitis says the 49ers are specifically suited to their style because of their personnel. While most teams now are pass-oriented, the Niners would prefer to break a game open by letting Gore and Hunter break free.
“They’re going to pound it and pound it and pound it, and then they hope to get their big shot in the running game,” he said. “That’s why (they) can do a bunch of different stuff, because (they) have the personnel and the scheme and the mindset that, hey, it doesn’t matter how many times you think you’ve stuffed us to 3, 4, 5 yards, we’re going to keep coming back to that because eventually we’re going to knock off a 20-plus (run).”
There was much talk in the offseason how the 49ers running back corps would be far deeper this season with the addition of free agent power back Brandon Jacobs (from the Giants) and rookie speedster LaMichael James from Oregon.
Yet, so far, Gore and Hunter have been the players carrying the football. Jacobs, injured in preseason, and James haven’t had a single carry.
Jacobs is healthy again, and could play this Sunday against the Rams, which would give St. Louis’ defense one more thing to worry about in San Francisco’s running game.
So far, the 49ers’ only weakness on the ground has been in third-and-short situations. On third-and-2 (or shorter), San Francisco has converted just 46.7 percent of the time (7-of-15), reports Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s an area where the 264-pound Jacobs could be a big help.
And one more aspect of the 49ers’ running game that the Rams will have to stop.