When the San Francisco 49ers signed veteran running back Brandon Jacobs as a free agent this offseason, it was for one purpose:
To use him as a hammer to nail first downs, touchdowns and defenders.
At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, the former Giant is one of the biggest running backs in the NFL.
“He has to understand who he is as a player,” 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “We need him to pack it up inside and run over guys, be physical as a ball carrier. If we want somebody to run outside, we’ll put somebody else in.”
The Niners certainly have a deep enough backfield to do just that.
Starting running back Frank Gore was excellent in 2011, rushing for 1,211 yards. Plus Kendall Hunter, in his first year, added a nice change-of-pace with an extra dose of quickness out of a small 5-foot-7 package, carrying 112 times for 473 yards. Add in third-year pro Anthony Dixon and explosive rookie LaMichael James of Oregon, and head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have numerous options.
But a healthy, hard-running Jacobs could be a terrific addition in short-yardage situations in 2012.
Last season for the Giants, Jacobs picked up five first downs in seven third-down short-yardage attempts, according to Pro Football Focus statistics, and converted 17 of 24 attempts on all short-yardage carries (two yards or fewer), reports Branch.
The Niners last season had trouble on third downs last season, converting just 29.4 percent of their opportunities.
Jacobs told Branch, “I do know one part of my role will be downhill, in between the tackles, the man who wants it more.”
To be more effective this season, Jacobs says he’s gotten fitter, doing more work to strengthen his legs and also losing 15 pounds, from 275, in recent months.
He believes that will help him whether he’s running inside or outside.
“I feel faster, I feel stronger, I feel like I’m playing with better leverage,” he told the media. “My pads are down more. I’m really looking forward to these preseason games we’ve got coming up.”
Though Jacobs is a load, a tough man to bring down when running hard because of his combination of speed, strength and size, he hasn’t always been effective during his seven previous NFL seasons, all with the Giants. He has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons (in 2007 and 2008), but has also had seasons in which he’s gone down more easily than it would appear possible. Last season he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and in 2009 he averaged just 3.7 yards on a career-high 224 rushes.
Said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck last season, in a back-handed compliment after watching Jacobs pound New England on the ground: “When that guy is motivated to play, he’s tough, man.”
In 2009, one New York Giants blogger wrote he was tired of “watching the 6-foot-4, 260-plus pound back consistently tippy-toe throughout the field like a ballerina instead of an NFL running back.”
Now Jacobs, at 30, has a fresh start with a new team and a new fitness level. He says he’s eager to show the 49ers what he can do, starting with Friday night’s exhibition game against the Vikings.
He knows the 49ers came a long way last season, and he now gets a chance to help them take a next step.
“These guys know what it takes,” Jacobs told the Wall Street Journal. “They have gotten there, they were close last year. The same effort you gave last year, you give that effort this year. With me having two Super Bowls and coming in, it only makes other guys want one.”