The 49ers’ running game has been strangely inconsistent this season after three straight years of excellence.
But in Saturday night’s loss to the Chargers, it was back. And it’s probably not a coincidence that right tackle Anthony Davis was back in the lineup. The 6-foot-5, 323-pounder – who had missed four straight games with a concussion suffered against the Giants on Nov. 16 – was clearing out big holes in the San Diego defense, especially early in the game.
The 49ers ran for a franchise-record 355 yards, with running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick each having big games, including a 52-yard TD run (by Gore) and a 90-yarder (by Kaepernick).
In his evaluation of the game, Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group singled out the play of the offensive line, and Davis in particular, noting: “Davis’ return at right tackle helped solidify the blocking, and several key blocks keyed the early touchdowns” as the 49ers leaped to a 28-7 lead.
For the first time in a long while, the 49ers had most of their starting blockers on the field together: Joe Staley and Davis at tackles, Mike Iupati and Alex Bonne at the guard spots and Marcus Martin at center. Martin, a rookie, began the season behind Daniel Kilgore. Once Kilgore was lost for the season, Martin stepped in, had a rough time at first but then developed. He missed the previous week’s game against the Seahawks with an injury and was replaced by Joe Looney. But Looney had a very bad game – singled out for poor play by offensive coordinator Greg Roman – and was benched against the Chargers. By all accounts, Martin played very well vs. San Diego.
“My whole offensive line was there,” Gore told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com after the game. “All year we missed one guy here, one guy there. I think that is what the problem has been. My O-line dominated their D-line tonight.”
It gives the 49ers something to ponder going into the offseason. When healthy, the group can still be very effective as run blockers. Boone, Davis and Staley are all locked up long term, but Iupati is in the last year of his contract, and the team may let him walk. Against the Chargers Saturday, Iupati looked more like his Pro Bowl self than he did earlier this season.
And, the line’s inability to protect Kaepernick this season could be due mostly to the injuries and constant changes on the line than any other factor.
The line, back together again, will get one more chance to show what it can do in the regular-season finale Sunday against the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. The 7-8 49ers hope to get a victory to avoid a first losing season since 2010.