For the 49ers, the Jim Harbaugh era has brought with it improvement at every conceivable area on and off the field in limited time. When he came in, he evaluated and made scheme and management decisions, many of which worked out beautifully.
In 2011, the 49ers finished with the eight-best run game in the league with 127.8 rushing yards per game. However, Harbaugh's competitiveness and mentality to always be better would suggest that eighth-best isn't first. Since Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have partnered up, they've brought in Kendall Hunter and more recently, veteran Brandon Jacobs to complement Frank Gore.
Enter ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.'
Since Earth (Jacobs), formerly of the Giant's Earth, Wind and Fire run game has joined the 49ers, the big picture of what the run game could be is beginning to come into focus. Most NFL teams like to have a stable of running backs, but there might not be a group as good as the one San Francisco now has.
Gore (Shake), Jacobs (Rattle) and Hunter (Roll) are the perfect complement to one another because they are all runners with completely different styles. Gore at 5'9" is a shifty runner with great vision and elusiveness. Jacobs at 6'3" is a powerful straight-line downhill runner. And Hunter is a 5'7" speedster with great quickness around the edge who can also disappear in traffic.
What's truly inspiring about this group is that their potential for success is high. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are very capable offensive minds who established a great running team together at Stanford University. They're creative and think three-dimensionally; they will conjure up situational plans for drives, downs, quarters and plays specific to each player's abilities.
Much like the 49ers' defense is able to stop the run at will, the 49ers' offense will want to run the ball on command. And they're capable of it because iron sharpens iron -- this trio will be tested and hardened in a full offseason against the league's No. 1 defense.
Something that's been done before, but not often, is a team having two separate 1,000-yard rushers. If Alex Smith isn't going to throw for 4,500 yards, is it possible the 49ers can dominate on the ground? In addition to ball security, they do believe a game is fought and won in the trenches.
It might be a long-shot to suggest two 30-year-old running backs run for a thousand yards each, but I could see it happening. The fifth team in NFL history to have two tailbacks run for 1,000 yards a piece was the 2008 New York Giants, led by Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. And one could argue Gore and Jacobs now is still a better tandem in a better situation. However, it's likely Hunter will have a big enough role to prevent Gore and Jacobs from becoming the seventh tandem to achieve that mark.
San Francisco likes to use the jumbo and heavy offensive packages that have a college-esque feel about them, but Harbaugh and Roman make them work in the pros. We could see paired combinations of Gore, Jacobs and Hunter, if not all three of them in the backfield at the same time. To throw the defense for a loop would be the point of all this; its Harbaugh's style.
Gore with his shiftiness will ‘shake' defenders for yardage as he always has. Jacobs will power through them and really ‘rattle' guys. While Hunter will ‘roll' right through deflated defenses that have already been marked up by his two teammates.
On top of what will make all three of these running backs produce lies 6'2", 248-pound Bruce Miller. Miller is becoming a stellar all-around fullback with great strength, size, speed and versatility. The relationships he builds with the backs could be special. The most fearsome might be the combination of Miller and Jacobs barreling downfield.
This group could feasibly become a top-five rushing team with a top-10-to-15 offense overall. With the leap the run game is expected to make in its second year in this system, the offense will surely prosper -- especially Smith and the passing game.