This is my Tuesday column.
The Bears and the Cardinals and the Broncos and the Rams are not defeating the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are defeating the 49ers.
Before the season started, if you had known the 49ers’ defense would rank second after eight games without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, what would you have expected the Niners’ record to be? 7-1? 8-0?
If anything diminished the Niners this season, it was supposed to be the depleted defense. But it’s playing better than ever. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a genius. His defenses carry the Niners every season.
Jim Harbaugh built his reputation on the back of Fangio’s defenses. Never forget that.
But Fangio’s defense can’t make up for the offense’s three big sins. I’ll define the sins in a moment.
Harbaugh’s offense used to be the Mighty-Men offense. The running backs and the offensive line would pound the defense, slug them over and over, make them submit.
The backs and the linemen still are mighty. What about Harbaugh and Roman? Are they equally mighty? Or are they play-acting at being mighty? I say they are play-acting.
When Harbaugh and Roman don’t call enough tailback runs, the Niners lose. It’s that simple. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde have carried the ball just 13.5 carries per game in the Niners’ four losses. They have carried the ball 28.5 times in the Niners’ four wins. You do the math.
Offensive linemen Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, they’re plodders. Slow, top-heavy waist benders who are not built to protect a quarterback from quick pass rushers. They’re built to maul defenses in the running game.
Mighty men stay with the running game even if they think it’s struggling. Mighty men don’t panic and try to win another way, the wrong way. That would be like Mike Tyson trying to fight without throwing the right uppercut, or Madison Bumgarner trying to pitch without throwing his fastball.
Harbaugh and Roman panicked Sunday afternoon. Gore appeared to be struggling, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry, so Harbaugh and Roman gave him just 14 carries the entire game.
Gore wasn’t struggling. He wasn’t struggling at all. Harbaugh and Roman were struggling. Look at the specific run plays they called. Look at their sins.
First sin in the run game, not enough power runs. “Power” is the basic running play in the 49ers’ playbook. Some teams call it “Bob Trey O.” It’s an off-tackle run toward the tight end. The guard farthest away from the tight end pulls and leads the running back through the hole between the tight end and fullback. Some games, the 49ers will run this play 10 times. It is their high heat. Nothing fancy. Try to stop it.
Against the Rams on Sunday, Harbaugh and Roman called Power only twice, and Gore gained 9 yards total. That’s 4.5 yards per carry. Any team would accept that.
Second sin: Not enough counter runs. “Counter” is another basic 49ers’ play. If Power is the high cheese, Counter is the curveball in the dirt. Counter is supposed to look like Power at first. The running back takes his first step toward the tight end, then cuts back and runs away from him. Basic.
Harbaugh and Roman called three counter runs against the Rams. Gore gained 13 total yards on two and Carlos Hyde gained 13 yards on one. That’s 8.67 yards per counter. That’s excellent.
Third sin: Not enough wham runs. The “Wham” is when the center allows the nose tackle to explode into the backfield untouched until – Wham! – a tight end blasts him from the side and knocks him out of the way and creates a big hole right up the middle.
The 49ers’ rookie center Marcus Martin was struggling to block the Rams’ best player, nose tackle Aaron Donald. The Wham would have given the Niners and an overmatched Martin another way to block Donald. Harbaugh and Roman called it once and Gore gained 14 yards. The play didn’t count because Alex Boone was flagged for holding a linebacker downfield. Harbaugh and Roman never called another Wham.
Why didn’t they call those runs more frequently? What was going on in their heads?
I specifically asked Harbaugh why he didn’t call more Counters against the Rams at Monday’s press conference, which he sleep-walked through. Or maybe he had taken an elephant tranquilizer. He ducked my question. I wonder if he even had an answer.
I blame Roman more than Harbaugh. Roman has nothing to do when the 49ers’ defense is on the field. He’s up in that coaches’ booth doing … what?
A competent offensive coordinator tracks the runs he calls, tracks how many yards they gain and repeats the efficient ones. Disguise the runs with a shift or a motion if necessary. But call the good ones. It’s like Roman lost track of the game.
Roman doesn’t need to be clever – Fangio is the clever one. Roman doesn’t need to be mighty, either. He just needs to use his little calculator, so he can figure out which basic runs are working that day.
Roman doesn’t owe the 49ers brilliance. He merely owes them competence.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.