On 49ers' play calling against Giants

January, 23, 2012
1/23/12
12:32
PM ET
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Kendall Hunter's 18-yard run moved the San Francisco 49ers into easy range for the tying fourth-quarter field goal Sunday.

The running game seemed to be there for the 49ers during their 20-17 defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. I did wonder, however, whether they got away from their conventional ground game too much in the clutch.

That was my impression following the game.

The idea seemed to catch 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh by surprise during his postgame news conference. Harbaugh, appearing a bit dazed following the abrupt end to a promising season, said the question did not "resonate" with him.

Indeed, the 49ers rushed 28 times for 150 yards against the Giants. Those numbers suggest San Francisco ran the ball plenty. But as the chart from ESPN Stats & Information indicates, the 49ers did get away from designed run calls as a percentage of total plays (designed runs exclude quarterback scrambles).

The 49ers' handling of two-minute situations played some role in the disparity. The team ran the ball shortly before halftime in an unsuccessful effort to run time off the clock. Passes were obviously more appropriate during the final minutes of regulation, when the score was tied.

I still thought we would see more conventional runs -- Alex Smith taking the ball from under center and handing off or tossing to a back -- than the 49ers showed in the second half.

"I'm sure it's something we'll consider and look at," Harbaugh said. "One thing doesn't work, you wish you would have done the other. It's one of the probably four or five of the things that you look at when you don't pull the game out. What could you have done differently?"

The 49ers are now 4-4 when passing more than 55 percent of the time this season. They are 10-0 in their other games. I wouldn't read too much into those numbers because run-pass ratios often reflect game situations more than they influence them.

The 49ers also deserve credit for freeing Smith on designed runs -- plays too risky for the regular season, in my view, but perfectly suited for an elimination game.

Frank Gore finished with 16 carries for 76 yards. Hunter added four carries for 31 yards.

Gore did not appear healthy over the second half of the season. He ran hard and played tough, as usual, but he also seemed quicker to come off the field voluntarily following hits.

I'll be interested in seeing whether there are any injury revelations regarding Gore now that the season is finished. Whether he plays in the Pro Bowl could provide clues.

This game felt like one where a fully healthy Gore would have rushed for 150 yards, keeping the 49ers' defense off the field a little more. Perhaps that would have happened if the 49ers' passing game converted a few times on third down.

Whatever the reason, the 49ers' ground game wasn't as big of a factor as I had anticipated.

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