The Magic 40: Shanahan has 49ers on the run heading into Vikings game

SANTA CLARA — Call it the Magic 40, and it has helped turn around a 49ers season that appeared to be on the rocks three weeks ago.

Coach Kyle Shanahan set an ambitious goal of 40 rushing plays in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams, and his offense came through with 44 rushes for 156 yards in a 31-10 win.

The 49ers followed that up with a 42-carry, 171-yard effort in beating the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-10 to even their record at 5-5.

Next up are the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, who know what it’s like to be on the other end of a full-on ground and pound, having lost to the 49ers 27-10 in the first round of the playoffs following the 2019 season and absorbing 47 rushes for 186 yards.

Shanahan covets 40 carries for good reason. In his 15th season as a play-caller, Shanahan has reached or exceeded 40 rushes 18 times. He was the offensive coordinator in Houston (2008-09), Washington (2010-13), Cleveland (2014) and Atlanta (2015-16). He’s called the plays for the 49ers as head coach since 2017.

Including the postseason, that’s a span of 224 games. Shanahan’s record in games with 40 or more rushes is 18-0.

If it were as easy and putting 40 running plays on his call sheet, Shanahan would do it every week. A lot of things have to go right to get to 40.

“Forty entails the whole team,” Shanahan said. “The defense has to play that way, the offense has to play that way and the special teams.”

Against the Rams and Jaguars, it’s not as if the 49ers have been overly explosive, gaining 337 yards on 86 carries and averaging 3.9 yards per attempt. But setting the tone early with opening scoring drives of 18 plays for 93 yards against the Rams and 20 plays for 87 yards against the Jaguars got the 49ers off to a good start while the other two phases did their job and enabled Shanahan to keep calling rushing plays.

“It’s not like we’re just gashing people in the run game,” Shanahan said. “We’re finding a way to stay out there. Our defense has been stopping guys at a higher level and we’ve gotten turnovers on special teams and defense.”

A deep dive into the 18 times Shanahan has called 40 or more runs in a game speaks to all the good things that come with that kind of persistence:

— Shanahan’s offenses have gained 3,483 yards on 761 carries, averaging 42.3 carries and 193.5 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt.

The most carries in a game were 52 (for 170) yards for Cleveland in a 24-3 win by the Browns on Nov. 6, 2014.  The most yards were 285 (on 42 carries) by the 49ers in a 37-20 win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship game on Jan. 19, 2020. The fewest was 99 yards (on 41 carries) for the 49ers on Oct. 13, 2019 in a 20-7 win over the Rams.

— The 18 games have featured 12 different backs as the lead rusher — Steve Slaton, Ryan Moats, and Ryan Torain of Houston, Roy Helu Jr., and Alfred Morris of Washington, Terrance West of Cleveland, Devonta Freeman of Atlanta and Matt Brieda, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel with the 49ers.

Morris was the leader four times, Brieda twice and Mostert twice.

Raheem Mostert carried 29 times for 220 yards when the 49ers rushed 42 times for 285 yards against Green Bay in the NFC Championship game. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

If you’re expecting Shanahan at any point to spend a first-round draft pick on a running back, guess again. The highest draft pick of all those backs was Samuel, who had 79 yards against the Jaguars last week and was a second-round selection as a receiver.

— Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback in eight of the 18 games where Shanahan’s teams have run the ball 40 or more times, is a 70.6 percent passer (132 of 187) with a 104.2 passer rating in those games, better than his career numbers of 67.3 percent and 99.1.

“Any football team that rushes 40 times, I think you’re going to have a good day,” Garoppolo said. “We’ve done it in the past, it’s worked for us well. Our offense seems to adapt to week and whatever the defense is giving us, we try and take advantage of that.”

— The constant churn of positive yardage creates better down-and-distance. Eleven times in those games Shanahan’s teams were 50 percent or better on third down, including going 14 of 26 in the last two weeks.

— Takeaways increase chances for possessing the ball and calling more running plays. Shanahan’s teams are a plus-17 in turnover margin in those 18 games.

— Getting sacks and preventing sacks increases possessions and ruins down-and-distance for the opposition. Shanahan’s teams are plus-26 in sacks over the 18 games.

To make the endless procession of rushing plays less predictable, Shanahan employs a number of position groups with the quarterback both under center and in the shotgun formation.

“They do a lot of window dressing but they want to be a power football team,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday.

The way the 49ers are running the ball is a flashback of sorts to 2019 when they went 13-3 in the regular season and trampled the Vikings and Packers en route to Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs.

That season, the 49ers were second in the NFL with 498 rushing attempts and 2,305 yards. Only the Baltimore Ravens had more rushes and yards, and they have a running quarterback in Lamar Jackson.

The 49ers had four straight games that season in which they had 40 or more rushes — wins over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Rams.

Former 49ers tackle Joe Staley, on his weekly appearance on KNBR, said Shanahan is going about running the ball differently over the past two weeks.

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“There was a play where Deebo was a fullback, what that does from the defensive side is put them in nickel,” Staley said. “He has different personnel groupings for every base play. It’s a run-based offense but completely different with the creativity of what Kyle is doing.”

The plays are set up differently, but Garoppolo saw the same look in the eyes of the Rams and Jaguars that he saw in 2019.

“You get a feel for their exhaustion,” Garoppolo said. “These last 14 days, I don’t want to say it’s changed our team, but we’re moving in the right direction now. Guys are winning one-on-one matchups. When you are across the board winning one-on-one matchups, it kind of sets the tone for everything.”

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