Despite the fact that Alex Smith had him a pretty great game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, much of the focus on Week 2's matchup against the Detroit Lions has focused on Frank Gore. That really should not be the case, but not for reasons you might suspect. No, we shouldn't switch our focus to Smith, but instead on another running back: second-year backup Kendall Hunter.
Aside from left tackle Joe Staley, the 49ers' offensive line had itself a pretty good day in Week 1, especially when it came to run blocking. Gore and Hunter both played very well, and a big part of that has to do with the otherworldly number of personnel packages San Francisco runs to keep things fresh. More than any team in the league they'll change things around to make a play work.
Against the tough-charging Detroit defensive line, San Francisco will need more of that. Jim Harbaugh will need to flex his creative muscle and get things moving side to side before he can get things moving up and down the field. While Gore has shown a surprising ability to run the sweep and still manage to make just the one cut, it's going to be Hunter's mobility and versatility that helps San Francisco on Sunday.
There needs to be a lot of trickery and a lot of getting Hunter the ball after those little legs have already kicked up. The 49ers have a nice weapon in Hunter, but they need to figure out how best to use him outside of running that sweep they love to run where Mike Iupati kicks out to the right side and [insert defensive player/extra offensive lineman here] gets a full head of steam as the lead.
The answer is pretty simple, actually: screens and draws. It's obvious why Hunter is great on the screen: he's just so good with his acceleration and evasiveness. The draw is a little less-obvious, until you look at Hunter in comparison to another player ... he's tiny. The draw is an effective play on its own, but with Hunter, he has the size to get in the holes created for him and may, at times, be hard to track by the defense. Give him a little extra time to do some guesswork and Hunter could be deadly against the Lions.
Sure, Smith could go out there and exploit one of the weakest defensive backfields in the NFL, but it's likely he'll end up on his back more than a few times if this happens. The smarter option is to get that running game cranked (to eleven, even) and let your defense handle Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson in much the same way they did a season ago.
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