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Brian Bahr/Getty Images Alex Smith, Kendall Hunter

The Niners Are Running Wild

How San Fran's ground game is wreaking havoc, and the rest of the Week 5 news

Before the season, when I wrote about the 49ers and the likelihood that they would decline this year, one of the topics up for discussion was how the arrival of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss would transform the 49ers offense. My position was that the Niners wouldn’t dramatically change their offense to account for them (or lose what made their offense work in the process), and that they would end up being peripheral figures. Although Manningham had a touchdown catch on Sunday, they’ve combined to average a total of just under six catches and 57 yards per game.

That’s not an enormous impact. What I underestimated, though, was the effect that the presence of Moss and Manningham would have on the rest of the offense. Their addition really hasn’t changed the passing game much at all; instead, they’ve forced opposing defenses to move their cornerbacks off of the line of scrimmage and tell their safeties to respect the deep pass. And that’s opened up space for a resurgent Niners running game.

Last year, the 49ers’ rushing attack served as the inefficient bulk of their offense. Because they faced so many eight- and nine-man fronts, the 49ers ranked just 24th in rushing DVOA and averaged an underwhelming 4.1 yards per carry, which was 19th in the league. Frank Gore seemed a step slow at times, and, without a real deep threat to occupy defensive backs beyond the likes of Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams, the rushing game’s first and most important job was to avoid turnovers.

Things have changed in 2012. With a revitalized Gore and a more impressive Kendall Hunter running behind an improving offensive line, the rushing game’s gone from being a placeholder to becoming a legitimate weapon. After dropping an incredible 311 rushing yards on the Bills during their 45-3 blowout of Buffalo on Sunday, the Niners are now averaging a whopping 6.1 yards per carry on running plays. 6.1! Since the merger, only the 2006 Falcons have averaged more yards per carry through their first five games, and they had Michael Vick. If you’re looking for something the stats didn’t see happening with the Niners before this season, that incredible improvement in rushing efficiency is figure one.

As you can see when we split out their performance by down, the Niners have started hot on first down and gotten better with each subsequent play:

This isn’t just the product of big plays, either; it’s a consistent, reliable attack. Last year, the Niners picked up first downs or touchdowns on 13.5 percent of their first-down carries; this year, that figure’s up to 24.4 percent. They produced a first down on 28.6 percent of their third-down carries, and that’s up to a whopping 52.6 percent (albeit on 19 carries). That’s a truly devastating attack.

Of course, it’s not just the impact of those new receivers. With Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, the Niners have the best left side of any offensive line in football, especially on the ground. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have continued to place an emphasis on personnel and formation diversity, further keeping defenses on their toes and creating mismatches. That’s only been heightened by the arrival of Colin Kaepernick and his Pistol playbook from Nevada, a dimension that the team was hesitant to bust out during Kaepernick’s rookie season. He’s been an effective runner so far, fumble on Sunday aside, and the Niners will undoubtedly create passing plays downfield for Kaepernick with those early-season runs as the year goes along.

That improved running game has also helped produce one of the best five-game stretches of Alex Smith’s career. All the people who suggested that Harbaugh would make Smith much better with a full offseason certainly appear to be right,1 because Smith is playing like a smarter, more effective passer. While he left a few big plays on the field against the Jets, that really wasn’t the case against the porous secondary of the Bills.

A perfect example of everything this offense does well is the 53-yard completion from Smith to Vernon Davis in the first quarter, a play that saw the Niners line up eight linemen or tight ends with their hands in the dirt and somehow end up with a bomb to an open receiver. This is a long, safe throw against a defense that’s totally unprepared for the possibility of play action and gets lost in pass defense. The Niners can now run out of this formation in future weeks against teams who will have this play in the back of their heads, which is a huge positive for such a run-friendly alignment.

So while Manningham and Moss haven’t had a direct impact on the passing game, they’ve been one of the many reasons why both the incumbent receivers and the rushing game have played at a much higher level. Now, going forward? I’m loath to mention the big R word in terms of the Niners, but it seems safe to say that they won’t have the second-best rushing attack in the history of the merged NFL over the final 11 games of the year. Obviously, they also don’t need to be that good to win football games. San Francisco should instead be able to settle for a more realistic, but still impressive, label: the best current running game in football.

Swamp Blues

When the Giants went down 14-0 to the Browns after five minutes in the Meadowlands,2 the universal siren went off for a thing I didn’t even know existed. The Giants — per the Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and text messages of just about every Giants fan I know — had just begun their annual act of dumping an early-season game at home to a terrible team. As a documenter of the mythologies of the Tom Coughlin era, notably Big Blue’s annual pursuit of quitting on Coughlin (between/amid Super Bowl runs), the arrival of this new Giants meme was exciting for me! When the Giants promptly roared back and took a halftime lead before winning by 14 points, the narrative became less compelling, but I still wanted to know: Do the Giants really have an established history of putting up stinkers at home against terrible competition under Tom Coughlin?

If they do, it’s a difficult lineage to trace. I went back through each result of the Coughlin era, and there’s just no real history of them struggling to beat bad teams at Giants Stadium. The reason it became such a topic of conversation is that the closest thing to examples are from recent seasons. Last year, the Giants lost to the Seahawks in a wild game during Week 5, but that’s a Seahawks team that played .500 ball from that week forward and looked like a much better squad in the second half. That loss isn’t quite as bad in hindsight. And in 2010, the Giants lost by 19 points to a Titans team that would finish the year 6-10. The latter definitely qualifies as a loss that fits our specifications.

Otherwise, though? I’m not seeing it. The 2009 Giants started 5-0 and didn’t lose a disappointing home game until they got stomped by the Panthers in Week 16. The 2008 team only lost once at home, and that was to a 9-6-1 Eagles team. The 2007 team lost to the 8-8 Vikings in Week 12. The 2006 team had an early home loss, but it was to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts in Week 1. And the 2005 team was another 7-1 home team, only losing to the 9-7 Vikings in Week 10. The 2004 Giants were 6-10, so it hardly seems fair to lump them in as a team that would be “upset” by an inferior squad at home.

Furthermore, other teams with similar records to the 77-56 record the Giants have posted during the Coughlin Era have some ugly home losses, too. The 77-55-1 Falcons lost to the 6-10 Lions in Week 4 of the 2004 season and came within a fourth-down fumble of losing to the Panthers at home last week. The 78-53-2 Eagles lost to the 6-10 Redskins in Week 4 of the 2010 season. The 74-58-1 Bears lost on opening day of 2004 to those same 6-10 Lions and then were defeated by the same 7-9 Titans that beat the Giants in 2010. You get the idea. It happens to everyone; it just so happened that the Giants had it sprout up in consecutive years.

If their subsequent comeback wasn’t enough to convince you that the Giants don’t have a problem with bad teams in early-season games at home, let history finish the job. Coughlin’s team does not appear to have any predilection toward such a disappointing loss.

Thank You for Not Coaching

First, let’s give a tiny, tiny bit of credit to a coach who was lambasted in this space last week. Ron Rivera did choose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, down six with 3:57 left and two timeouts, as he should have. Why they chose to roll out Cam Newton on a pass play is truthfully beyond me, but it should be noted that the Panthers were able to get Ben Hartsock wide open for what should have been a lead-taking touchdown, only for Newton to try to get the ball to Hartsock with a bounce pass. Baby steps for coach and quarterback alike.

Let’s also give credit to the Seahawks, who took advantage of the intentional safety that I broke down for the Buccaneers a few weeks back. They had an ideal situation for the intentional safety, as they were about to punt to a timeout-less Panthers team from their own 18-yard line with 59 seconds left. Because you shouldn’t care about losing by one as opposed to losing by three in the case of a Panthers touchdown,3 your goal should be to avoid a turnover on the punt and maximize the distance between your goal line and the spot where Carolina gets the football.

Since 2009, punts in this situation have produced an average of about 42 yards of field position, so we could suggest that the Seahawks would expect to give the ball to the Panthers on Carolina’s 40-yard line if they were to punt. Although safety kicks are rare enough that I’d hesitate to use the real data as my only measure, it seems reasonable enough to suggest that a free kick from the 20-yard line and its corresponding return are unlikely to produce an average starting field position better than the 40-yard line. The Seahawks actually moved the ball back to the Carolina 31-yard line, so they improved their “expected” field position by about nine yards while making it harder for Carolina to produce a touchdown return. That’s a good move.

The worst move of the week belonged to Cincinnati and the combination of Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden, who managed by a book that should not exist. When A.J. Green scored in the fourth quarter of a turnover-filled game with the Dolphins, the Bengals were faced with a conundrum. Down 17-12 before the extra point with 15 minutes left, the Bengals could choose to go for two and try to tie the game with a future field goal, or kick the extra point to go down four and … well, what’s the point of going down four?

You’re up three in the case that you score another touchdown, but early in the fourth quarter of a low-scoring game, the difference between having to score a touchdown and being able to tie with a field goal is enormous. It came up 12 minutes later, of course, when the Bengals had a fourth-and-5 and were forced to debate whether to try to score a touchdown or to try to kick two field goals at the end of the game to win. (They kicked and missed.) The model suggests that the Bengals should have gone for it if they had better than a 25 percent chance of success. Miami’s run defense is stout, but not that stout.

Ironically, while that later decision to go for it produced far more criticism, the choice to kick a field goal and go down one wasn’t really an awful idea. ESPN Stats and Information plugged the possibilities into their win expectancy model and found that Lewis’s two choices had a roughly similar likelihood of producing a win.

The Dolphins also made a curious decision. In a 7-6 game with 2:53 left in the first half, Miami lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Cincinnati’s 38-yard line. Their move was to attempt to draw the Bengals offsides, but it didn’t work, which usually means that you give up on running the play. Instead, the Dolphins called timeout, lined up for the play again, and then actually went for it this time, only for Jorvorskie Lane to get stuffed for no gain.

What’s the gain by taking a timeout and lining up to go for it twice? During the first play at the line, you have the added leverage of being able to tell a defense that you might not be running a play at all and that they should be more concerned about not jumping offsides than anything else. That makes them hesitant and less likely to win at the point of attack. When you call timeout and go for it on the second try, it’s far more likely that the team in question is actually going for it and the defense can act and react accordingly. That alone is enough to make the decision ill-advised.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell