The San Francisco 49ers put a lot of focus on upgrading their passing attack in the offseason, adding more receivers for quarterback Alex Smith.
But as long as Jim Harbaugh is the team’s head coach, San Francisco’s offense will always be based on a solid ground game, which means Friday night’s exhibition opener, a 17-6 victory over Minnesota, may be a preview of things to come.
The 49ers – who ran the ball more often than any team in the NFC in 2011 and were fifth in rushing yards in the conference – rushed for 260 yards against the Vikings, even without starting running back Frank Gore.
Big running back Brandon Jacobs looked strong, especially on short-yardage carries, and second-year pro Kendall Hunter appeared explosive, gaining 24 yards on five carries.
Though San Francisco’s running game was its foundation last season, the offense often had problems converting on short-yardage situations on third and fourth down. The addition of Jacobs was supposed to fix that, and Friday night it did.
Jacobs was given the ball four times in short-yardage and picked up a first down on each carry.
He picked up 3 yards on a fourth-and-1 to keep alive the opening 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive; 23 yards on a second-and-1; 2 yards on a second-and-1; and 3 yards on a third-and-1.
Harbaugh told reporters after the game that the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder “looked really light on his feet.”
The performance gives offensive tackle Joe Staley some optimism.
“It was something we’ve put a lot of emphasis on this offseason, just converting on those third-and-shorts and third downs in general,” he told Taylor Price of 49ers.com. “I was happy with our conversion there (on the fourth-and-1 on the team’s opening drive). It’s something to build on.”
With Jacobs, Gore, Hunter, Anthony Dixon and rookie LaMichael James, the 49ers backfield is deep. Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com wrote after the game that “the 49ers’ backfield is as deep as any in the league.”
“All our backs ran great tonight, Brandon included,” Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, when asked about the competition at running back. “They all looked great. You know, I think that’s a good problem to have.”
James carried three times for 15 yards; Dixon 12 times for 46 yards; even backup fullback Rock Cartwright, acquired as a free agent from the Raiders, carried eight times for 44 yards, with a 19-yard gain. As a team, the 49ers rushed the ball 42 times and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt.
“It was a good start,” Staley told reporters. “You want to come out in the first game, first series, set the tempo, something to build on. Obviously it wasn’t perfect, but it’s good to get a first-drive, scoring drive in there. I thought we did some good things.”