When Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown visited San Francisco 49ers practice Monday in Ohio, where the team is practicing this week, perhaps he had a message for head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The greatest running back of his era probably noticed the same thing Sunday that many Niners fans saw as they watched San Francisco lose its first game of the season, 24-13, to the Vikings.
“Hey, Coach,” Brown could have asked. “What happened to your running game Sunday? Where’d it go?”
From the start, the 49ers’ game plan against the Vikings was much different than the usual approach taken by the Niners since Harbaugh became head coach last season.
San Francisco passed on 14 of its first 18 plays from scrimmage and gave running back Frank Gore just 12 carries (he gained 63 yards) in the game. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the Niners threw 21 passes against just eight running attempts in the first half.
For the game, San Francisco called 42 pass plays – 35 passes attempted, three sacks and four quarterback scrambles – against 20 running plays.
How out of character was it? Consider this: In 2011, the 49ers ran the ball 498 times, the third most running plays in the NFL, while throwing the ball 451 times, which ranked 31st in the NFL – only above the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos.
Gore’s per-carry average Sunday was good – 5.3 yards per attempt – but for one week he seemed to be an afterthought in the 49ers’ game plan.
After Sunday’s loss, when Harbaugh was asked why Gore wasn’t involved more in the game, Harbaugh told Branch: “We always have Frank involved in the game.” Then, in answer to the followup question of why Gore didn’t have more touches Sunday, Harbaugh said: “I don’t have an answer for you.”
Mike Sando of ESPN examined Sunday’s game and points out the 49ers executed only two running plays in the 14 times the Vikings showed loaded defensive fronts (more defenders near the line of scrimmage) in Sunday’s game, and also ran just once out of three-receiver formations. Sunday’s stats, Sando says, indicate the Vikings were perhaps trying to force the 49ers to throw.
But, says Sando, once the 49ers were behind – a situation they didn’t once face in opening the season with two straight wins – the passing game became the priority and the run took a back seat, a common occurrence in the NFL.
Plus, he says, Harbaugh is now 15-4 in the regular season as an NFL head coach, so it’s not as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But, it will be interesting to see if the 49ers regain their usual offensive mindset this Sunday against the Jets in New Jersey and try to establish the run.
The Jets certainly offer a good opportunity for Gore and Co.: in three games, the Jets have given up 446 yards on the ground (148.7 yards per game), 4.6-yards per carry and three runs of more than 20 yards.