The Niners have been relying on running back Frank Gore lately. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The San Francisco offense doesn’t look quite the same as it did late last year, when Colin Kaepernick took over the quarterback job and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
At that time, the Niners were playing wide-open football. The Kaepernick-to-Michael Crabtree connection was slicing up opposing secondaries, while the read-option, pistol and designed runs of Kaepernick were picking up huge chunks of yards on the ground.
This year, the 49ers offense has a different, less-dynamic look.
With Crabtree out and no effective wide receivers to take the pressure off Anquan Boldin – and opposing defenses intent on stopping the read option – San Francisco has had to evolve. In effect, the 49ers have gone back to the future, focusing more on traditional power-running plays since losing two games in a row early in the season.
Yet the change doesn’t necessarily mean the 49ers aren’t dangerous on offense. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
San Francisco’s 31-17 victory over the Titans in Nashville Sunday was the fourth straight game in which the team has scored 30 or more points – all victories – in improving to 5-2 this season, with a game against winless Jacksonville Sunday in London. And overall, the 49ers’ fives games with 30 or more points this season ranks second in the NFL only to the Denver Broncos, who have seven.
With running back Frank Gore carrying the bulk of the load, the 49ers have run the ball well in consecutive victories over the Rams, Texans, Cardinals and Titans.
Gore ranks No. 4 in the NFL with 547 yards, averaging 4.3 per carry. And as a team, the 49ers are No. 3 in rushing at 143.3 yards per game.
By getting back to basics, the 49ers are now making opposing defenses stop the run first, which is opening up avenues for Kaepernick and the passing game.
“I feel we have an explosive offense like we’ve always had,” Gore said. “We have a lot of key guys out, but this team is special.”
When Crabtree and fellow wideout Mario Manningham get back on the field after recovering from injuries, it may make the 49ers offense more flexible. Without effective options other than Boldin, the passing game in some games – such as against Seattle – has been bottled up.
But against the Titans Sunday, the 49ers were able to diversify a bit and sprinkle in some read-option plays that they’d put aside for much of the season. With all their focus on stopping Gore, the Titans were vulnerable to the read option, which they ran seven times for 42 yards, with Kaepernick picking up 35 on five carries, including a 20-yard TD run.
To Gore, that’s what makes San Francisco’s offense as dynamic as it’s ever been.
“Each week it’s going to be something different,” said Gore. “We’re not selfish. We just take one game at a time, just try to take small steps, the right steps, and not ups and downs. We’re trying to take small steps.”
Gore then told Taylor Price of the 49ers’ team website that when the offense gets back all its players – wideouts Crabtree, Manningham and rookie Quinton Patton – “It’s going to be crazy.”
Until then, San Francisco will likely keep pounding the ball. It’s been the 49ers’ formula for success.
As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com reported, via ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers have called designed runs on 59 percent of their plays during this four-game winning streak. In the team’s first three games, when San Francisco went 1-2, designed runs were called on just 35 percent of their plays.