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How the 49ers changed their running game but had similar results against Panthers

What’s typically the staple of Kyle Shanahan’s offense? It’s using a fullback or multiple tight ends more often than any other team in the league.

It allows Shanahan’s club to excel in the running game and create mismatches through the air because fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has been out three games with a knee injury, is a tough cover for linebackers and safeties. On play-action passes, in particular, Juszczyk is often sprinting beyond the second level of the defense as linebackers hedge toward the line of scrimmage to play the run.

The 49ers didn’t have Juszczyk during Sunday’s 51-13 blowout over the Carolina Panthers. But they still had success on the ground. They logged 232 yards on 38 carries (6.1 average) and had five rushing touchdowns. Three came from Tevin Coleman, who added a fourth on a screen pass, with rookie receiver Deebo Samuel getting one on a well designed inside run in the third quarter. Raheem Mostert scored his second touchdown of the year in garbage time.

What’s been particularly notable about Shanahan’s offense the last three weeks is his ability to scheme around the injuries to important blockers. Juszczyk, of course, is a pivotal piece to multiple running back personnel groupings. But the team has also been without left tackle Joe Staley since Week 2 and right tackle Mike McGlinchey since the Monday night win over Cleveland Oct. 7. Blocking tight end Levin Toilolo only played seven snaps after entering the weekend questionable with a groin injury.

The injuries forced Shanahan and his offensive consiglieres Mike LeFluer and Mike McDaniel to get creative in designing plays that put first-year tackles Justin Skule and Daniel Brusnkill in positions to succeed.

“It’s always a challenge, but it’s not our first time having to do it,” Shanahan said Sunday. “We’ve all been coaching for a little bit and the more situations you go through, the more you learn how to do it. I know it sounds like a huge challenge when you are down to your fourth and fifth tackles, but that’s kind of an insult to those guys because those guys definitely haven’t been playing like fourth or fifth tackles. They’ve made it a lot easier to put game plans together, because they’ve been impressive.”

Familiarity breeds success

Helping has been the fact Shanahan is in Year 3 of his tenure. The majority of the players know the complex principles of the system, which means they can adjust to new game plans as players go down with injuries. Though Shanahan also pointed out Skule and Brunskill have done well given they don’t have the same institutional knowledge because they’re in their first seasons with San Francisco.

“I think it makes it easier for the other guys to step it up because they have an idea of the different directions we can go schematically, which you want that to be any way possible based on what you’re going against,” Shanahan said. “Those two have stepped in well and been very impressive.”

Skule was the lineman blocking veteran Bruce Irvin on a long-developing pass play when Jimmy Garoppolo was sacked for safety. He was also called for a hold on another sack in which Eric Reid got to Garoppolo on a blitz. Shanahan pointed out he probably should have called a different play when the 49ers were backed up to the goal line leading to the safety.

One of the key takeaways from Sunday, however, was the offense’s ability to run the ball from 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), which is a departure from the heavy sets the team typically employs when healthy. It could make the 49ers’ even more dangerous when all their pieces return because they can be even more versatile in the running game.

Let’s take a look at how the five rushing touchdowns Sunday broke down, with four coming with three receivers on the field.

First rushing touchdown: Tevin Coleman, 19-yard draw (shotgun)

(11 personnel), Emmaneul Sanders, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, George Kittle, Coleman

Dante Pettis runs an “orbit” motion behind Garoppolo and Coleman, and Garoppolo fakes a throw to Pettis after the handoff. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was unblocked and hesitated, and Coleman bursts by him up the middle for the easy score. Skule and Brunskill didn’t have to do much but sell pass-blocking sets. The play flowed to the right and left guard Laken Tomlinson did well to get to linebacker Luke Kuechly on the second level and seal him from Coleman.

Second rushing touchdown: Coleman, 48-yard draw (shotgun)

(11 personnel) Sanders, Richie James Jr., Deebo Samuel, Kittle, Coleman

Reid blitzed from the left side of the defense and had an unimpeded chance to blow the play up. But he froze at the handoff, and Coleman ran right past him to the vacant part of the field where Reid could have been. Coleman, who ran a 4.39 in the 40 before getting drafted, was off to the races. Skule let the defensive end get up field, like he would in a screen, and went to the second level to block a linebacker. Brunskill rode his defensive end to the left, clearing space for Coleman on the right side.

Third rushing touchdown: Samuel, 20-yard inside handoff

(11 personnel) Bourne, Sanders, Samuel, Kittle, Coleman

Samuel came in motion from the right side to just outside of the left tackle. Sanders went in motion faking a jet sweep at the snap, and Samuel took the handoff going over right guard. The Panthers had 10 players in the box because of the bunch formation with three receivers on the left side. Yet the pre-snap motion, and strong block from Brunskill of a linebacker on the second level, cleared a lane. Kuechly was stuck on the inside after hesitating while trying to read Garoppolo, who was faking a read-option with Coleman to the opposite side. This was a really impressive design from McDaniel.

Fourth rushing touchdown: Coleman, 1-yard inside handoff

(23 personnel) Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Levine Toilolo, Sheldon Day, Coleman

Day shuffled to his left just before the snap and did well to block a blitzing linebacker while Coleman went the other way over right guard. Brusnkill pinned a defensive lineman inside and Kuechly had a chance to stop Coleman in the hole, but Coleman beat him to cross the goal line. It was surprising to see Kuechly not blow Coleman up in the hole. It was a tough day for the All-Pro linebacker trying to stop San Francisco’s ground game.

Fifth rushing touchdown: Raheem Mostert, 41 yards

(11 personnel) Bourne, Dwelley, Pettis, James, Mostert

Bourne went in motion from right to left at the snap. Brunskill, playing right guard, had a good block on a defensive tackle sealing him outside, and Kuechly jumped the wrong gap on the inside as Mostert flew past him. From there it was a foot race and all Mostert had to do was make Tre Boston miss en route to the long score. The Panthers weren’t exactly playing with much urgency at that point. It was the first play after the offense turned the ball over on downs the previous snap.

Injury update

There was some good news on the injury front for San Francisco on Monday ahead of Thursday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.

The team was forced to issue a practice report despite not having a real practice. Running back Matt Breida, who tweaked his ankle on the final play of the first half, was listed as a limited participant, which bodes well for his chances Thursday.

Fellow running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who sustained a stinger and was checked for a head injury, wasn’t listed, which means he’s entering the week healthy.

Staley was also listed as limited and seems likely to make his return from his fractured fibula Thursday after returning to practice last week. Receiver Marquise Goodwin also rejoined the team after missing Sunday’s game and the previous two practices while dealing with a personal matter.

Players who wouldn’t have practiced: McGlinchey (knee), cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and Juszczyk.

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Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.
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