49ers rediscover identity just in time for difficult stretch of schedule

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Just two weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers were left for dead in the NFC playoff race. They had just been throttled at home by the Miami Dolphins, were more banged up than any other team in the league and looked nothing like the defending NFC champions.

The Niners had a choice: continue down that path to nowhere or find a champion's mentality.

"I think that's just what we needed, that wake-up call to really spark a fire underneath us and get that sense of urgency back because we know what we're capable of," linebacker Fred Warner said. "That wasn't who we were that week."

The past two weeks, the 49ers have made it clear which route they've chosen. They beat the Los Angeles Rams last week and dominated the New England Patriots 33-6 on Sunday, handing coach Bill Belichick his worst home loss since he took over in 2000.

To do that, the Niners got back to leaning on a run-heavy offense with an efficient play-action passing game complemented by a stingy, opportunistic defense.

That's the type of bruising, physical style that coach Kyle Shanahan has sought since he arrived in 2017.

"Football is a violent sport, and if you don't kind of go to that dark place and be violent and be physical, you're not going to last very long," tight end George Kittle said. "Coach Shanahan always talks about 'Find a dark place.' ... The longer I’ve been here and the more Kyle talks about it, the more I see everybody kind of goes to that dark place. It's fun to be a part of a team with a bunch of psychopaths because I fit in really well here."

That "bunch of psychopaths" has found its groove in large part because its running game revved back up to the team's expectation. On Sunday, the Niners ran by design or used play-action on 51 of their 63 offensive plays, the highest percentage (81%) of such plays in a game by the 49ers since ESPN began tracking in 2008 and the highest by any team in a game this season.

With the offensive line asserting itself, the Niners gained 103 of their 197 rushing yards before contact. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was 13-of-14 for 146 yards on play-action passes, the most play-action completions in a game during his career.

The 49ers have run the ball 37 times in each of their past two games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 159.5 rushing yards per game.

Thirty carries is a sort of magic number for Shanahan because it usually means the Niners ran the ball effectively and controlled the tempo. Since Shanahan took over in 2017, San Francisco is 20-4 when it reaches 30 rushing attempts, including 13-0 since 2019 and 3-0 this season. That formula allows the defense to remain rested and effective.

The next three games -- against Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans -- will go a long way in determining what this team can be. To get through that stretch in contention, the 4-3 49ers know the blueprint. Now it's a matter of continuing to follow it.

"How it's been the last two weeks is how we obviously hope every week is," Shanahan said. "When you play defense the way our guys have been playing, we're running the ball like we have been, just how physical all our guys have been playing. ... Those guys play like it's their last play every down. When you can do that for an entire game, you play smart, don't turn it over, usually good things happen."