Where Does 49ers' Run Game Go From Here?

Photo: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers’ run game is holding on for dear life after a slew of injuries hit their corps of running backs. Though the 49ers are 2-0, this is not the start to the season 49ers fans wanted to see, especially after the barrage of injuries that limited their success in 2020.

It all began when the 49ers’ initial starter, Raheem Mostert, went down with a knee injury just two carries into San Francisco’s Week 1 win over the Detroit Lions. Two days later, he announced the damage to the cartilage in his knee would require season-ending surgery. The following Sunday, new starter and sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell came out of the game with a shoulder injury, backup JaMycal Hasty suffered a high-ankle sprain, and third-round rookie Trey Sermon exited with a concussion on his first carry. San Francisco general manager John Lynch classified Mitchell as “very questionable” for this weekend (he’s officially listed as doubtful), Hasty will likely miss a few weeks, and Sermon is day-to-day and the most likely of the bunch to play in Week 3.

So… what now?

After Mostert’s injury, San Francisco wisely made some moves to maintain depth in the backfield. They signed former Lions running back Kerryon Johnson to their practice squad and claimed Trenton Cannon off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. After the rest of the injuries the following week, they signed Jacques Patrick from the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad. Now, the 49ers must get all their new faces familiar and integrated within head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, some of whom haven’t been with the team for even a week.

The hits to the backfield are especially hard on San Francisco given their commitment to the run game. After two weeks, only the Ravens (55.6% of plays) and the New Orleans Saints (54.4%) have run the ball more frequently than the 49ers (53.7%). That said, running the ball frequently is likely still the game plan for the 49ers, who take on the Green Bay Packers in this week’s Sunday Night Football matchup. Green Bay ranks 26th in rush success rate of all NFL defenses, which gives San Francisco even more of a reason to run.

If Sermon isn’t the one getting all the carries, it might be because we see more of rookie quarterback Trey Lance. After seeing some action on four snaps against the Lions in Week 1, Lance didn’t see the field at all against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. We know from that first game that Shanahan wants to get Lance involved with his legs as well as his arm—the rookie ran on three out of his four plays, with the outlier being his first pass attempt (and first touchdown). Having Lance make more of an impact in a primetime game against a lackluster Packers run defense was probably already on Shanahan’s mind to begin with, even more so now with all the 49ers’ injured backs.

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, though. If Sermon is healthy, this game is his chance to break out after all of one carry through two games. His backup, Patrick, went undrafted in 2019 and played in the XFL last year. Both healthy backs in San Francisco have something to prove, and they’ll be especially ready with the added spotlight of Sunday Night Football. Whether the 49ers’ run game goes through Sermon or Lance, or if the 49ers decide to move away from the run in favor of the pass game, what we see on Sunday night will tell us more about San Francisco’s identity as they move forward with their injury-stricken backfield.

Written By:

Jack McKessy

Staff Writer

Jack McKessy is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism who grew up in Washington, D.C. As a student, he covered Northwestern’s football, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and baseball teams. Previously, he was in charge of social media and contributed to both written and multimedia content creation for La Vida Baseball in Chicago. He has also assisted in the production of promotional content for the Big Ten Network. Jack initially joined the TDN team as an intern during the 2020 season. Now, he writes columns—primarily analysis of the New York Giants—and helps run TDN's YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.