A position that was supposed to be a formidable aspect of the 49ers dynamic offense under Kyle Shanahan has been put into question ever since newly-acquired Jerick McKinnon went down with a torn ACL in the last practice before training camp ended. As John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan believed in their other running backs, it was next man (or men) up in the 49ers backfield. Going into Week 3 against the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs, the question still remains: can the 49ers’ backfield offer more than a one-dimensional style?
Taking a look back at Week 1 against the Vikings defense, 49ers running backs rushed 23 times for a total of 84 yards, averaging 3.7 YPC. With Matt Breida and Alfred Morris splitting carries almost identically, the two ran the ball 11 and 12 times respectively, for 46 and 38 yards respectively. While both of their numbers looked similar, watching them both run told a different story. Matt Breida averaged over four yards a carry, while Morris averaged 3.2. Even dating back to last year Matt Breida finished the season strong, out-rushing Carlos Hyde. Taking that same running style into 2018, Breida has made it clear that he’s the better running back in the tandem. Having a monster game on Sunday vs the Lions, Breida racked up over 130 yards on eleven carries, averaging 12.5 yards a carry. With a good chunk of those yards coming on his explosive 66-yard run, he still averaged 7.2 yards a carry on his other ten rushes that game.
Morris, on the other hand, stayed consistent with what we’ve been seeing from him. Morris ran the ball fourteen times for a total of 48 yards, while averaging 3.4 yards a carry, around the same as his 3.2-yards-per-carry performance in Week 1. It’s become clear that Matt Breida is the shiftier, quick running back that the 49ers need to use early on in games, to wear out opposing defenses. Alfred Morris on the other hand, is the ground-and-pound style runner that can break tackles and eat up the clock.
Without Jerick McKinnon, the 49ers not only lost a speedy runner, but they lost a running back who can catch passes out of the backfield almost as well as anybody. McKinnon was supposed to thrive in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and was expected to put up big numbers as that dual-threat, pass-catching, back that was perfect for this offense. So with McKinnon no longer in the picture for this season, how will Breida and Morris fill in as pass-catchers? Neither of them are Jerick McKinnon, and we shouldn't expect them to be. The passing game out of the backfield will not be the same as what it could have been, and that makes the 49ers a little bit less dynamic in that area. Matt Breida worked a lot this offseason in the passing game as the coaches pushed him to become a better pass catcher, an area he was not good in last season. With no McKinnon and a backfield that isn't known for catching passes, the 49ers will look to utilize Kyle Juszczyk more.
Taking a look at these first two weeks of the young season, it's clear that the 49ers will not be throwing either Breida or Morris nearly as many passes as they would a healthy McKinnon. In Week 1 against the Vikings, Breida and Juszczyk were the only two backs who got looks in the passing game. Breida was targeted twice, while catching one pass for five yards. Juszczyk, on the other hand, also was targeted twice, but he busted one open for a massive 56 yard gain. The Week 2 victory vs. the Lions was different. Jimmy Garoppolo targeted Matt Breida four times, completing three catches for 21 yards. He targeted Alfred Morris twice, completing both passes for 32 yards, and Kyle Juszczyk also came down with three catches for 13 yards. In total, 49ers running backs were targeted 10 times, catching eight of them for a total of 66 yards. If we look at both of the first two games combined, 49ers running backs have been targeted in fourteen of Jimmy Garoppolo’s 59 total pass attempts. Combined, the three of them have hauled in 10 catches on the year for a total of 127 yards (27% of Garoppolo’s 467 yards through the air). It's hard to predict how that would have compared to a healthy Jerick McKinnon’s production, but just looking at those numbers, it’s clear that it’s at least servicable.
Through two weeks, the 49ers have shown they can survive without Jerick McKinnon in the passing game. With continued improvement from Matt Breida, and taking advantage of Kyle Juszczyk’s abilities, the team can get by just fine for the time being. It would have been fun to watch McKinnon in this offense, but by no means does this make the 49ers backfield one-dimensional. This week, the 49ers travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in their home-opener. The Chiefs’ defense has struggled mightily the first couple games, and the 49ers should be able to pick it apart. Breida, Morris and Juszczyk should be getting lots of looks this week as the backfield will be put to the test in the passing game.
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