SANTA CLARA -- Generally, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan strives for a 50-50 balance between run and pass in his offense.
But he was 100 percent sure this week that he wanted to tilt his play-calling decisively one way Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs at Levi’s Stadium.
“We had a goal going into this game,” Shanahan said. “We thought the team that got over 30 runs would win this game. We truly looked at that as a team goal.”
The 49ers ended up flying past the 30-carry mark, as the 49ers ran the ball on 47 of their 68 offensive snaps in a 27-10 beatdown of the Vikings to punch their ticket to next week’s NFC Championship Game.
Running back Tevin Coleman, who had not rushed for more than 40 yards since gaining 105 yards in a Week 8 victory over the Carolina Panthers, led the way with 105 yards and two touchdowns on 22 rushing attempts.
“It was great to see him have that success,” 49ers running back Raheem Mostert said. “He’s been in a Super Bowl. He’s been there and done that, and even scored a touchdown in a Super Bowl. For a guy like that to be in our huddle, it really encourages us to play at a high level and know what to expect, because he’s a student of the game.”
The key sequence of the game occurred after Richard Sherman’s interception of Kirk Cousins gave the 49ers the ball at the Minnesota 44-yard line. The 49ers held a 17-10 lead with 9:49 remaining in the third quarter.
That is when the 49ers set out on an eight-play, 44-yard touchdown drive that consisted of nothing but running plays.
“We didn’t start out that way,” Shanahan said. “You don’t start out before (the drive) and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to run it on every down.’ You start out and you stick with it, and eventually, we scored.”
Coleman up the middle for 4 yards to the Minnesota 40.
“Kyle gave us that goal coming into the week,” 49ers left guard Laken Tomlinson said. “It’s all 11 guys. It takes all 11 guys and the offensive line doing a really good job of creating lanes for all our backs. It takes the receivers, too. Even Jimmy (Garoppolo) carrying out the fakes.”
Coleman up the middle for 6 yards to the Minnesota 34.
“He wants to call the same play because we gashed them the first time, so he’s going to stay with those runs because we had a good look and everybody did their job and we got a big run off it," Coleman said.
Coleman off right tackle for 6 yards to the Minnesota 28.
After Coleman ran the ball on three consecutive plays, he got a breather and Mostert entered the game.
“It was one of those things, you got to go in there and do your job,” said Mostert, who gained 58 yards on 12 carries. “Tevin went in there and got hot and got the momentum going, and I just came in and did the same thing, just tried to keep the momentum going.”
Mostert up the middle for 7 yards to the Minnesota 21.
Nobody was complaining about the 49ers’ desire to run the ball, especially not tight end George Kittle, himself a skilled and determined run-blocker.
“We ran the heck out of the ball today,” Kittle said. “Playing against six techniques with the linebackers on the inside, it's pretty easy to get those combo blocks up to them. We dominated the edges today. It was a great day to run the football.”
Mostert off right tackle for 4 yards to the Minnesota 17.
It was not like the 49ers were tearing off huge chunks of yards. The team averaged just 4.0 yards. But the consistent success in the run game was able to neutralize the best feature of the Vikings’ offense – their pass rush.
“It was just really efficient,” 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. “The whole game plan coming in was to be able to run the ball and control the clock. We felt confident in the ability of our defense to do what they did today.
“We really just wanted to be able to get the run game going and stay efficient on first and second down because when you get that defensive front in third and long situations, they are very, very talented.”
Mostert off left tackle for 4 yards to the Minnesota 13.
The Vikings allowed just five run plays all season of 20 or more yards, so the 49ers knew they had to be patient. Even with their big-play running backs, it was not going to be easy to hit a big gain.
“We kept saying in the huddle, ‘These guys are going to get tired, and one of these is going to pop.’ But testament to them for not allowing that to happen,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “They like to run a lot of two safeties, and kind of play with an umbrella like that and limit your explosive plays.”
At this point, it was obvious the 49ers felt like they could control the line of scrimmage.
“If it works, don’t change it,” Tomlinson said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Guys did a great job of buying into the calls, even if they are the same runs. We know exactly what needs to be done.”
The 49ers' relentless rushing attack began to eat at the Vikings' morale.
“They got frustrated, so they start fighting and pointing at each other and getting after their own guys, and that’s what we like to see. We got them. We'll keep running the ball," Coleman said.
On third-and-2, Coleman up the middle for 11 yards to the Minnesota 2.
The 49ers were faced with their only third-down play of the game, so Shanahan had a decision to make. He ended up sticking with what was working.
“One of my favorite plays of the game was the third-and-2, where we ran a power scheme that gets 10,” 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “When you can do that against a team that is loading the box, with the way they’ve been successful against the run all year, that’s how you take over football game. You look at the still shot on the tablet and the whole thing was walled off. That’s how you dominate football game.”
Coleman off right guard for 2 yards and ... a touchdown
Coleman’s touchdown run gave the 49ers a 24-10 lead. With the way the 49ers’ defense was playing, it felt like it was an insurmountable lead.
But even more than the two-touchdown advantage, it seemed to send the message that the 49ers could do, essentially, whatever they wanted on offense.
“It was huge,” McGlinchey said. “We came back to the sideline knowing that was a potentially game-changing drive. The five of us were pumped about it on the sideline. The coaches were pumped about it.”
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Running the ball the way the 49ers did is sense of pride for every member of the unit.
“When you can do that to a team, it makes it tough on defenses. We ran the hell out of the ball. Those guys up front battled their asses off. It was fun," Garoppolo said.
The 49ers called some repeat running plays on that drive and throughout the second half. After the Vikings made some defensive adjustments, the 49ers countered with some off-script alterations to their game plan.
“There were a lot of repeat calls, and by the end of the game, we started just drawing up plays on the sideline, plays that we didn’t practice all week,” Juszczyk said. “Kyle calls it, and you just know by the formation how to run it.”
Now, whichever team that comes to Levi’s Stadium next week will know that if the 49ers believe they can run the football and they will not hesitate to become bullies.
“That’s just our standard,” Tomlinson said. “That’s for other teams to deal with. They’re going to see that on tape. And they know that we’re coming and we’ll keep imposing our will.”