SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There is an interesting debate in the NFL these days between people who think it’s a pass-first league, and people who are wrong. The NFL is absolutely a pass-first league. Except, once in a while, when it isn’t.
The 49ers mauled the Vikings 27-10 Saturday, almost exclusively because San Francisco ran for first downs and Minnesota ran into 49ers players. San Francisco ran for 186 yards on 47 carries. Jimmy Garoppolo threw just 19 passes. Meanwhile, Vikings star Dalvin Cook needed a police escort just to get back to the line of scrimmage; he finished with 18 yards on nine carries.
By the end, the 49ers’ offensive linemen were gawking at still photos of their own awesomeness on the sideline: third-and-two, power scheme, “the whole thing was walled off,” 49ers tackle Mike McGlinchey said. And the Vikings were beaten mentally before they were allowed to leave the field.
But this was not about San Francisco’s run-first dogma. It was a reflection of two simple football truths: Line play is essential to winning, and great coaches understand that every game is different.
This is easy to forget in the aftermath, but when the game started, it was the Vikings who wanted to run. They ran on their first two plays. They ran on second-and-18 from their own four and again on third-and-15 from their own seven, sending a pretty clear message that they did not think they could win mostly through the air. As 49ers DE Arik Armstead said, “That’s what they wanted to do, coming into the game, was run the ball. We all knew that.” San Francisco did not let it happen.
Meanwhile, the 49ers passed on six of their first eight plays and scored a touchdown that opening drive. But this is why you will probably be watching Shanahan on NFL sidelines for the next 20 years. He prepares, adjusts and reacts in real time as well as any offensive mind in the sport. Despite completing five of his first six passes, Garoppolo had actually been a little shaky. And once the 49ers established that their running game was more effective than their passing game—and once they took the lead—they kept running.
On the drive that put the 49ers firmly in control, Garoppolo didn’t even need biceps. San Francisco ran it eight straight times and scored a touchdown. You couldn’t make offensive linemen happier with a lifetime’s supply of chicken wings.
“It’s without a doubt the best,” McGlinchey said. “It keeps us in control of the game. It keeps us out of big third-down situations, which is how you play winning football.”
Well, that is what offensive linemen always say. The truth is that if you are too committed to the run to avoid third-and-long, you end up with third-and-long a lot.
As Shanahan said last week, “You don't just run the ball and get 40 runs by calling run-run-pass, because you're going to be in some third-and-eights. You have to mix it up, you’ve got to do things. How does the defense play? How good do you do on third down? Are we getting some explosive runs? … There's variables within the entire game that usually leads to who has the most run carries.”
The 49ers kept running because in this game, against this team, it worked. And it worked largely because San Francisco has built their team along on the lines. They had a clear advantage there all day, to a degree that was shocking; the Vikings did just win in New Orleans last week. But once it was going that way, Shanahan kept it going that way. His defensive line was so good (“It seemed like in that whole second half, every time Cousins took a drop back, somebody was in his face,” McGlinchey said) that there was no need to be aggressive.
When the 49ers recovered a muffed punt in Vikings territory in the second half, leading 24–10, Shanahan got conservative: run, screen, shovel pass, field goal. Shanahan seemed to understand the one thing the 49ers could not do there was turn it over. A three-score lead in this game felt like a fifty-score lead.
It felt that way because the 49ers’ defensive front, led by Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, was the best unit on the field for either team. They are talented, they are relentless and they are disciplined. The Vikings never made the 49ers pay for over-pursuit or poor gap discipline.
Shanahan said afterward that “we thought the team that got over 30 runs would win this game.” But surely what he meant was that the team that could run effectively enough for 30 runs to make sense would win the game. He did not plan for an eight-run, no-pass drive.
“You don’t start it out by saying, ‘We’re going to run it every down,’” Shanahan said, “It was just a hell of a job by the O-line coming off the ball, getting some push. When you can do that, you wear the guys down and force them to change some of their coverages a little bit.”
If the 49ers want to win two more games, they will probably need Garoppolo to make more plays. They will face more explosive offenses. Then again, as McGlinchey said, “I don’t think teams like to give Kyle Shanahan two weeks to prepare for something.” One more win, and the 49ers get two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of all.
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