The San Francisco 49ers offensive issues have been plentiful this season: Colin Kaepernick has disappeared into quicksand and the running game has been inconsistent. Dave Archibald explores what might happen when the 49ers Carlos Hyde meets the New York Giants defense.
The 49ers and Giants meet in a matchup hearkening back to battles for NFL supremacy throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. San Francisco’s Bill Walsh orchestrated one of the game’s great offenses, while Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick oversaw a top defense. These squads are pale shadows of their lofty predecessors, however. The Giants, who in their history employed outstanding pass rushers Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan, are currently second-worst in sack rate. The 49ers, who once boasted Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, are dead last in passing yards and average an anemic 12 points per game.
In the Zone
For the past few years, the 49ers primarily used man/power blocking schemes that head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman brought from Stanford. But Harbaugh and Roman are gone, as are running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati, and tackle Anthony Davis.
San Francisco and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst have decided to change scheme as well as staff and personnel, now employing a zone-based rushing attack. They are still run-heavy, ranking eighth in the NFL in rush attempts and fifth in rushing yards, and they set the tone for their planned approach from their very first play of the season:
The 49ers use 13 personnel, with all three tight ends lined up to the left side. That side is the strength of San Francisco’s offensive line, with Pro Bowler Joe Staley at left tackle and solid veteran Alex Boone at left guard. They run outside zone in that direction, and the offensive line puts on a clinic. Tight ends Vernon Davis (#85) and Garrett Celek (#88), and guards Boone (#75) and Jordan Devey (#65) all execute “reach” blocks, getting to the playside (left) shoulders of the defenders and walling them off to the right.
That frees up tackles Staley (#74) and Erik Pears (#71), and center Marcus Martin (#66) to get into the second level and block the linebackers. No one has to use brute strength to shove his man off his spot, but they all need to move quickly so the run can develop. Running back Carlos Hyde (#28) follows the blocking and picks up a 9-yard gain.
Against The Grain
Hyde, a second-round pick in 2014, has shown the ability to make plays on his own, too:
On the 10-yard-line, the 49ers run outside zone to the offensive right. Hyde sees daylight back towards the left and puts a dizzying spin move on star defensive end Everson Griffen of the Minnesota Vikings, who has backside contain. With Griffen out of the picture, it’s just a footrace to the pylon for the touchdown.
While one cannot argue with the final outcome or the skill that Hyde displayed here, the decision to cut the run all the way back outside was a bit dubious:
The play was well-blocked in front of him, and Hyde might have been able to pick through the blocks and get down close to the goal line. By cutting the run back, he ran the risk that the unblocked Griffen might haul him down for a loss. He was willing to take that chance and it paid off with a touchdown.
But things don’t always work out when Hyde gambles:
This play is not as well-blocked as the above two, but at one point a lane develops where Hyde can press forward for positive yards. Instead he stops, apparently seeking to bounce the run back to the left, then resumes stringing the run outside after realizing the backside pursuit has him contained. His hesitation gives the Green Bay Packers time to get off their blocks, and Clay Matthews (#52) tackles him for a three-yard loss. Hyde needs to learn to take what is there rather than go for the home run every time.
Hyde carried the ball 26 times for 168 yards ‒ 6.5 yards per carry ‒ and two touchdowns in Week 1, but has totaled just 114 yards on 36 carries (3.2 YPC) with zero touchdowns since.
Things don’t figure to get better against the Giants, who have allowed the fewest yards per game (69.8) and per carry (3.1) in the NFL. New York doesn’t have the big names in their front seven that they had in days of yore, but they have lunchpail defenders who are tenacious enough to make plays in the run game:
The keys to this play for the Giants are two second-year players, defensive tackle Jay Bromley (#96) and defensive end Kerry Wynn (#72). Bromley resists the reach block of Buffalo center Eric Wood (#70), fighting to stay to the playside. This puts him in position to make the tackle if the Bills’ running back Karlos Williams (#29) tries to cut the run back. Wynn also fights to stay on the playside and ultimately sheds the block of tight end MarQueis Gray (#48) to make the tackle.
With zero sacks, Wynn lacks the explosiveness of starter Jason Pierre-Paul, but his run-stuffing ability has been a strong feature of the Giants’ defense in Pierre-Paul’s absence. Bromley, Wynn, and the rest of the front seven will play significant roles against the run-heavy 49ers.
Each team has shown flashes, with San Francisco netting a decisive 20-3 victory over the Vikings in Week 1 and New York posting back-to-back wins against Washington and Buffalo in Weeks 3 and 4, but each team is looking for more consistent performance in the young season.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.