• John Bulmer

Sermon on the Field: Breaking Down the Rookie’s Performance and Fit in 49ers Scheme

Image Credit: 49ers

When the 49ers traded back into the third round of the draft to pick Trey Sermon, I’ll admit to being a little perplexed. At the time, Raheem Mostert was the main man and a third-round running back seemed like a bit of a luxury.

However, as usual, injuries hit and all of a sudden the pick seemed a little more prescient. After a relatively slow start this season and seemingly falling behind fifth-rounder Elijah Mitchell on the depth chart, Sermon was suddenly thrust into a more prominent role against the Seahawks and he responded with very respectable numbers as you can see below.

Admittedly this was against the worst run-defence in the NFL (averaging 152 rushing yards against per game in 2021) but you can only beat what’s in front of you, right?

New Kid Needs a Block

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As a rookie still learning his trade, the support he gets up front is going to be key in Sermon’s production and development. As you can see from the stats above, if the blocking isn’t there, then Sermon is not able to produce the numbers that the team needs. Fortunately, the offensive line performed much better versus Seattle and provided a platform for him to build on. However, this still didn’t tell the whole story.

These numbers clearly show the importance of the left side of the line and how much Sermon is relying on them at the moment. This is fine for now, however being so reliant on one side of the line for all of your yardage is a concern going forward as it does make you easier to scheme against and a bit predictable.

Even the notoriously-hard-to-please Kyle Shanahan has noticed an improvement in Sermon though and was very positive recently, as reported by Matt Maiocco. With Mostert gone for the season and the RB room banged up (as usual!) now is the time for him to seize his opportunity.

How Does He Continue To Improve?

One thing that Sermon needs to learn quickly is how to use his speed effectively in the NFL. At times, Niners fans have accused him of having happy feet and dancing around too much behind the line of scrimmage. There is certainly an element of truth to this; however, the criticism is also somewhat harsh.

He is still only a rookie and getting used to the gamespeed. He also plays for a team which has been spoiled in recent times by having quick, one-cut, explosive backs; by comparison Sermon is going to seem quite pedestrian. He is not an outside-zone runner like Mostert or Mitchell and will do most of his work between the tackles, something that 49ers fans will have to learn to understand and get used to. Against Green Bay this was slightly tricky as they gambled on Garoppolo’s reluctance to throw downfield by stacking the box, thereby crowding Sermon’s potential running lanes.

As Shanahan himself referenced in the Maiocco article, running backs often take a while to understand how to use their speed effectively; they are either dancing around waiting for holes to open up or being impatient and running into the back of blockers by going too early. Trying to figure this out while playing behind a slightly inconsistent line (at least on the right side) will take a bit of time.

Perhaps the greatest assistance he could get will come from another, more-talked-about Trey – quarterback Trey Lance.

The addition of Lance after halftime produced immediate results against the Seahawks and this was hopefully a vision of things to come. Certainly in the short term at least, the sheer unpredictability of Trey Lance may well open things up in the Niners running game enough to give Sermon a bit more room to work in. Indeed, Shanahan already has similar history from earlier in his career when working with RGIII and Alfred Morris in Washington.

This is certainly a mouth-watering proposition as Alfred Morris (49ers legend!) put up very good numbers in 2013, gaining 1,275 yards on 276 carries for an average of 4.6 yards per carry in just his second career season. Those numbers may be a bit much to expect but it does give you a clue of what is potentially possible in a Shanahan offense with an athletic quarterback.

Chances are that he won’t get near those numbers though as he will split time with Elijah Mitchell (injuries permitting) for the rest of the season. I see Sermon becoming more of the workhorse inside with Mitchell going for the big-splash, outside-zone plays. This could be a nice balance though; providing a combination of speed and power to keep defences on the back foot.

Trey Area?

Image Credit: Bay Area News Group

All in all, there was more than enough promise last week to suggest that those already judging this third-round selection harshly may yet end up with egg on their faces come the end of the season. As ever, only time will tell, but I prefer to take a more “glass half full” viewpoint and hope that there will be not one, but two, Treys getting love from the Faithful in the coming years.

All of Sermon’s runs versus the Seahawks can be found here.

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