This is my Saturday column.
Do the 49ers trust Carlos Hyde.
If the answer is yes, turn him loose this week.
The 49ers have an easy game this Sunday. They play the Giants, losers of four in a row, a team the league has figured out.
The Giants’ run defense is a police escort service for the opposing team’s running back. The past four games, teams have run 140 times for 807 yards against the Giants – 5.8 yards a pop. If you run the ball, the Giants fold.
And the Niners run the ball. So the Giants should fold and fold fast. Simple. The final score should be something like 31-13.
But the Niners have a conundrum. Is it worth wearing down Frank Gore against a bad team?
Gore fades the more he carries the ball. He is 31 years old and he has a chronic hip injury. He’s averaging 3.6 yard per carry in the second half this season, and just 2.8 yards per rush after his 15th rush in a game. The fresher his legs, the better he runs at this point in his career.
And he carried the ball 24 times last week against the Saints. He can’t be fresh. Can the 49ers limit Gore’s playing time this week, save him for a tougher opponent down the road?
That depends on Hyde.
The past three games, Hyde has carried the ball only nine times. But he was outstanding during those nine carriers, averaged 8.5 yards per carry. Last week, the 49ers ran Hyde three times in a row to start overtime. Brilliant. The Saints defense was tired and sore and had no interest in tackling Hyde. He’s too violent.
Hyde is Gore’s opposite. Hyde gets better the more he runs the ball. He wears down defenses with body blows in the first half, and then knocks them out in the second half.
At least he did in college. He averaged 9.4 yards per rush in the fourth quarter at Ohio State last season. Defenses just got out of his way.
Hyde is one of the most talented running backs the 49ers ever have drafted. His combination of speed and power is rare. But those qualities aren’t enough. He has to be a quality blocker if the Niners are going to depend on him.
Pass protection is the toughest aspect of football for a rookie running back to master. Most stud running backs aren’t asked to pass protect in college, so they have to learn the skill in the pros.
A running back who can’t block tips off plays to the defense. It’s because a running back who can’t block won’t be on the field for a pass play. If he’s on the field, it’s probably a run and the defense knows it. Not good.
Is Hyde a liability? Is he tipping plays? I sat down this week with Tom Rathman to find out. Rathman is the 49ers’ running backs’ coach and one of the best blockers in NFL history.
“Every chance he’s had to block a guy, he has been on his guy,” said Rathman. “He’s doing a good job. The biggest thing you look at in protection is are their eyes in the right spot? He’s a little late at times with his eyes in certain spots.”
NFL coaches ask running backs to scan their eyes quickly from left to right in pass protection. The running back has to find and block the sixth rusher if the defense blitzes.
In the fourth quarter against the Saints, Hyde seemed to overlook a rusher and appeared to give up a sack. Hyde stepped up in the pocket to block an inside linebacker, and never saw the outside linebacker, Parys Haralson. Right tackle Anthony Davis blocked the same guy Hyde did, the inside linebacker. Haralson dashed around the edge unmolested.
On TV, color commentator John Lynch blamed Hyde for the sack. “Carlos Hyde is a rookie,” Lynch said. “Frank Gore, there is no one better. Confusion between Anthony Davis and Carlos Hyde. Got to have Frank Gore on the field in that situation.”
Lynch was wrong. Hyde blocked the right guy. Hyde has begun to learn how to block and whom to block. He has passed the beginner stage.
“Actually, (Hyde) had the inside linebacker,” said Rathman. “The tackle (Anthony Davis) was responsible for the outside linebacker.”
If there’s one thing Hyde has to work on to elevate his overall game, what is it?
“To be a complete player and a consistent player, I can’t just pinpoint one thing,” said Rathman. “He has done a great job to date, but the game is so big that it takes so long for a kid to understand the game from the top to the bottom, all the fine-line stuff. He’s still trying to figure that out right now.”
Let him figure that out this week against the worst run defense in football.
Turn him loose.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.