Niners' Run Game Thrives Against Stacked Defenses

Shanahan’s scheme, a strong offensive line and super-quick running backs such as Raheem Mostert are a recipe for success

When it comes to running backs, appearances can be deceiving. Take Raheem Mostert, for instance.

The former Purdue standout who had a breakout season for the 49ers in 2019, is all of 5-foot-10 and 197 pounds. He’s strong and solid, but speed and quickness are his game – not brute strength. He hardly looks like the kind of running back who can pound the football into the middle of a stacked defense and thrive.

And yet, in 2019, that’s exactly what Mostert did.

Mostert was one of the best backs in the NFL last season when defenses put eight or more defenders “in the box” (stacked close to the line of scrimmage).

The top running back in the league in those situations, according to the analytic website Pro Football Focus, was Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-3, 247-pound, tackle-busting ball carrier who led the NFL with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Defenses were so tuned in to stopping Henry that he faced stacked defenders in the box 244 times yet still averaged more than 5 yards per carry in those situations.

But Mostert ranked No. 7 in effectiveness against stacked defenses, also averaging more than 5 yards per carry, while also ranking No. 2 in the league in forcing missed tackles on runs against stacked defenses. His 27 percent forced-missed-tackle rate ranked second only to Chris Carson of Seattle.

Wrote Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus: “He was just one of four backs to carry the ball at least 50 times against eight-plus defenders in the box and average over 5 yards per carry on those runs. Clocking a 4.32 unofficial 40-yard dash time at his pro day, Mostert clearly has the speed to be a threat on every play, but he’s also a tough guy to bring down.

“Against stacked boxes in 2019 … (he) averaged 3.7 yards after contact per run.”

Mostert and former 49er Matt Breida (now with Miami) thrived in Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense, which relies heavily on a zone-blocking scheme, quick and athletic offensive linemen who can pull and move, outside runs and – most importantly – a commitment to the run.

As Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated wrote earlier this year after the Niners had run all over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game – Shanahan’s sophisticated and complicated running attack can exploit even stacked-against-the-run defenses by relying on quick, explosive running backs like Mostert.

Wrote Bishop: “Shanahan builds a menu of plays with endless variations; the same bunch formation could yield dozens of options, based on which players stand where in the bunch and what their strengths are compared to the weaknesses of individual defenders. That will dictate which routes they run or how they block. It’s all very specific. The overall menu doesn’t change a ton over the course of a season, but what he chooses for any given week varies greatly.”

The bottom line: Mostert, given his first true chance to prove himself in 2019, was terrific. Going into 2020, he could be even better – even with eight or more defenders waiting for him.

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