Although Blaine Gabbert’s running ability was present in the first five games of the season, he was never considered a serious threat to change the game with big chunks of yards on the ground.
Running back Carlos Hyde could see a difference on Sunday in how the Buffalo Bills defend the zone-read game with Colin Kaepernick replacing Gabbert at the controls of the 49ers’ offense.
“They were probably keying on me because they don’t respect Blaine’s speed until he pulls it and he breaks one,” Hyde said. “And they said, ‘All right, never mind, we can’t play it like that.’ Maybe they’ll come at it differently with Kap being back there. Around the league, they know Kap can run the ball, so maybe they’ll play it differently.”
Hyde is the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher with 377 yards and six touchdowns. But with a 4.0-yard average, those yards have not come easily. Kaepernick’s experience and success in running the zone read could prove beneficial for Hyde. After all, it is clear that Hyde has been the central figure of the 49ers' offense.
“You got to watch out for Hyde,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “That kid is a heck of a back. It’ll start by us playing good run defense.”
Only four running backs in the league have attempted more than Hyde’s 95 rushing attempts through the first five weeks of the season. He has also taken a few hits on plays in which Gabbert kept the ball on the zone read. Hyde said it is fine if that continues with the Bills’ defensive ends crashing down on him on Sunday.
“Cool, because if Kap pulls it and goes for 60 and scores a touchdown, now they got to be honest and play it right,” Hyde said. “Now we’re having fun back there.”
Gabbert carried 39 times for 172 yards (4.4-yard average) in the first five games. The 49ers have used the zone read more than any team in the league, and that element of the team’s offense only figures to be enhanced with Kaepernick at quarterback.
“It doesn’t change," 49ers coach Chip Kelly said of the team's offense. "They are both similar type athletes in terms of what they can do. They both run. They both throw. So I don’t think you’ll see schematically we’re not going to change our entire offense to do this.
“You’re not dealing with two different types of athletic people. Obviously, Blaine had 70 yards rushing in our last game on 10 attempts. Blaine can run and do what we are doing offensively. Kap can do what we’re doing.”
But the threat of the quarterback-driven run game is more imposing with Kaepernick back in the starting lineup. Kaepernick rushed for 524 and 639 yards in his two full seasons (2013 and ’14) as the 49ers’ starter. In his college career at Nevada, he had three consecutive seasons with 1,100 yards or more gained on the ground.
“I think there are a lot of great things this offense does and allows the quarterback to do,” Kaepernick said. “It’s similar to things I’ve done in college and that makes me feel very comfortable in it.”
The 49ers enter Sunday’s game ranked 31st in the NFL in total yards per game. Hyde said he is encouraged from what he has seen from Kaepernick in practices in the passing game, too.
“Man, I see Kap on the money,” Hyde said. “The way he’s been practicing this week, if he carries that over to Sunday, we’re going to have a really good chance of winning this game.”