How Effective Can the Run Game Be Against the Chiefs?


Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

Kyle Shanahan’s first two playoff wins as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers have made everyone forget about the pass.

The 49ers’ offense dominated both games, racking up 471 rush yards on 89 attempts. That’s 5.3 yards per carry if you’re taking notes.

Of course, the sporting press isn’t one to let these unique wins go untarnished. No, Fellow American, we must sow the seeds of grave doubt, fear, and loathing that the 49ers’ run game will fail.

Ignore the hired geek.

The Kansas City Chiefs allowed 2,051 yards on the ground during the regular season on 416 attempts, for 4.9 yards per carry – the fourth-worst average in professional football.

Between Weeks 2 and 6, the Chiefs’ run defense allowed 890 yards on the ground, including 180 to the Indianapolis Colts and 192 to the Houston Texans.

The Colts gained 113 yards between both guards, but the Texans had no problem dominating the line of scrimmage – especially the right edge.

Further, Tennessee Titans’ running back Derrick Henry gained 102 of 188 yards running over the right guard in a Week 10 victory over Kansas City.

These brutish realities are not an example of disciplined run defense.

The 49ers’ run game will have success on Sunday, but here are three specific reasons why it will thrive.

The Run Game Isn’t Complicated. You Just Have to Figure Out What Shanahan’s After.

Shanahan’s run offense may not differ much from that of other NFL coaches and coordinators. Indeed, 31 other teams also have outside and inside zones, powers, leads, and counters.

How Shanahan uses the menu of runs is what sets him apart from his contemporaries.

The NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers was an excellent example of Shanahan using trap and power runs at the right time to expose a fraudulent defense.

Running back Raheem Mostert’s first touchdown that afternoon came on a trap play called on third-and-8.

Green Bay had six men in the box against the 49ers’ five offensive linemen. In theory, a trap run on third-and-8 from the 38-yard line has a questionable success ratio. But Shanahan knew how and when to exploit Green Bay.

In previous 49er teams, I noticed the coaching staff grind out one or two types of runs with the hope that a handful would break open for big plays.

It’s not that way with Shanahan. His run options are the same as many others, but nobody can figure out exactly how to prevent their success.

Savoring the Little Emotions

The first 49ers play in a Week 5 blowout of the overhyped Cleveland Browns was “14 Suzy.” Throughout the season, many of the film junkies have discussed Suzy as another innovation in Shanahan’s run game.

“14 Suzy” is the reciprocal of a weakside run called “Wanda.” With “Wanda” runs, Shanahan asks his backs and line to attack weak. When he calls “Suzy,” it starts off looking like a weak run, but has both backs cut to the strong side after three steps.

Defensive players are taught to read keys on the offensive line, such as the guards, as it will guide them to the ball carrier.

“14 Suzy” takes advantage of that Pavlovian response. With the offensive line and both backs baiting the defense with a read step to the weak side, the defense has no choice but to go with them.

Once the fullback and running back cut strong, it’s often too late for the linebackers to make up lost ground.

If the Chiefs can somehow prepare for the nuances in both “Wanda” and “Suzy,” Shanahan will hit them with another mirrored play like he did against the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoffs.

Midway through the third quarter of that game, the 49ers took the ball at Minnesota’s 44-yard line and ran the ball seven times in a row for a score. The opening play for running back Tevin Coleman was “14 Suzy”, which gained four yards.

Three plays later, with 7:47 on the clock, Shanahan called a run that motioned tight end George Kittle into an “I Right Clamp” formation. The 49ers were in a strong right look.

From here, it looked as if the 49ers would run “14 Suzy.”

Instead, Shanahan flipped the run and ran it to the weak side. I do not know the name of the play, so I thought I’d name it for him.

Both backs moved in the same direction and then cut back in unison to the weak side. The Vikings’ defensive line flowed with the movement of the 49ers’ offensive line, fullback Kyle Juszczyk keyed on Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, allowing running back Raheem Mostert to gained seven yards.

Introduce a Little Anarchy.

If Steve Young had an invisible monkey on his back before Super Bowl XXIX, then Shanahan has a 900-pound albatross hanging from his neck for supposedly “losing” Super Bowl LI.

Everyone walking onto the field in Miami wants to prove something to a doubter, but Shanahan is there to shine a little brighter.

All that talk of a lack of running attempts in the latter part of Super Bowl LI can be put to rest. He’s going to come at the Chiefs with a wide variety of new looks and alterations on staple runs.

Remember those end-around run plays from rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel? Those are now in a big trashcan.

On Sunday, Samuel will line up next to Coleman or Mostert, drawing a confused look from the Chiefs and a 12-yard gain from Mostert.

Not enough?

Don’t be shocked when Shanahan has his backfield aligned in a wishbone formation. The varied talents of Coleman, Mostert, and Matt Breida have kept defenses from settling in and stopping one type of back. The wishbone allows Shanahan to keep three in the backfield and still execute a zone or power run.

The wishbone also allows Shanahan to use counter runs like “Stutter,” which uses gap blocking principles at the line and pulls the backside guard to trap a woeful defensive end. He could also run his split-flow series that sends the back weak and the fullback to block the strongside linebacker.

I can’t wait to watch Frank Clark guess who might be carrying the ball and where to try and make a stop.

There are two bad bets to make for Sunday’s game. The first is the over/under on the national anthem, and the second is against Shanahan’s running attack. Expect at least 150 total rush yards and two scores from the 49er running backs.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.

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