This is the era of the quarterback in the NFL. Offenses are built on passing attacks, not off-tackle runs. Running backs almost have disappeared from the first round of many recent draft classes.
Yet the 49ers under head coach Kyle Shanahan are a throwback team. They ran their way to the Super Bowl, with 47 and 42 running plays in their two playoff victories. When San Francisco takes on Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Sunday, Feb. 2, the Chiefs will first have to focus on stopping a pounding running attack that ranked No. 2 in the NFL in 2019.
Shanahan has built a running game on the model used by his father, Mike, who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. The 49ers use a zone-blocking scheme and agile offensive linemen, along with multiple shifts and formations, to find cracks in the defensive front, using sweeps, traps, draws and combinations of running backs.
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It’s a throwback offense.
And, as Ben Shpigel of the New York Times recently pointed out, nothing illustrates Shanahan’s commitment to the running game more than Raheem Mostert’s 36-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of San Francisco’s 37-20 victory over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game this past weekend.
With the game still scoreless, the 49ers faced a third-and-8, but decided to run the ball with Mostert instead of calling a pass. Mostert – who would run for 220 yards and four touchdowns – took the handoff from Jimmy Garoppolo and burst through a hole created by a trap block to sprint for the game’s first score. San Francisco would build a 27-0 lead by halftime en route to the win.
"That was honestly my favorite play of the day," fullback Kyle Juszczyk told Shpigel. "Who calls a trap on third-and-8?"
San Francisco rushed for 285 yards against the Packers, with Garoppolo throwing the ball just eight times.
The winning formula for the Niners has been to run the ball, control the clock, stay away from mistakes and let a dominating defense take over the game. The 49ers, too, are the healthiest they’ve been in a long while.
Offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are back after missing games with injuries. Kicker Robbie Gould has regained his accuracy. Tight end George Kittle has recovered from a late-season injury. And the defense has several standouts back after missing time, including defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt.
The 49ers at this point have a ton of confidence as they get ready to go to Miami.
"When we have all our weapons, it’s really, really hard to beat us," said McGlinchey. "The last two weeks, it’s really hard to even stay with us."
Shanahan says the success of the running game is about a lot of things – including being able to throw the ball. Though the 49ers haven’t thrown that much over the past two victories, Garoppolo did have some big games during the season and Shanahan says he can again in the Super Bowl if needed.
"Eventually if you just get five yards here and there every time (with the run game), that’s great, but are you going to get points?" Shanahan said this week. "All that stuff goes into it. You can’t give a good answer for that because there’s variables within the entire game that usually leads to who has the most run carries. Usually the team who has the most run carries wins, so you try to get the most run carries. But the answer isn’t just calling run every play."
Kickoff for Super Bowl LIV is set for 3:30 p.m. (Bay Area time).