SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers don't appear to be straying away from their offensive calling card when they made three straight runs deep into the playoffs from 2011 through 2013. Not after Week 1's win over the Vikings, anyway.
Under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who was Colin Kaepernick's quarterback coach under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers started the year by going tight-end heavy in their 20-3 win over the Vikings.
Very, very, tight-end heavy.
They used '13' personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver) on 34 of 73 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, more than at any point last season, and more than any other team in the NFL so far. They used two-tight end sets on 20 more plays, meaning they had at least two tight ends on the field 74 percent of the time.
That led to 39 runs for 230 yards and 26 pass attempts resulting in 165 yards. Running back Carlos Hyde, of course, was the star of the game, scoring both of San Francisco's touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards on 26 carries.
With 168 yards rushing, Hyde leads the NFL after one week.
"They blocked a variety of looks well, they ran the ball hard collectively," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week in a conference call. "Kaepernick made a few plays with his legs like he’s capable of doing."
"Three tight ends, or two tight ends or two backs, the bottom line is there was one wideout on the field. They’ve employed and have employed it for a number of years. So, it’s nothing new in that regard, obviously. You got to line up against it and defend it."
By playing the San Francisco in the opener, the Vikings didn't have the luxury of advanced scouting on Chryst's offense. With the cat out of the bag, how will the 49ers adjust moving forward now that future opponents have film to evaluate?
"I think that the way we started the game, not just with that personnel group but having success out of it, maybe you didn't have to get to other parts, other corners of the call-sheet because we were success with that," Chryst said. "So, moving forward, it's a long season and each week is a different test."
While San Francisco's rushing attack was good enough to control the game, and help put the defense in a position to succeed, Kaepernick's passing could improve. Kaepernick didn't complete a pass longer than 20 yards, and found new receiver Torrey Smith just once on three targets, when they connected for an 11-yard pass in the first quarter. However, Kaepernick had a string of nine-straight completions ranging from the second to the third quarter.
"It's a long season and eventually defenses have a way of challenging you," Chryst said.
So what can the 49ers expect Sunday in Pittsburgh?
The Steelers will surely emphasize covering the 49ers tight ends after what happened in their season-opening loss to the New England Patriots. Rob Gronkowski scored three touchdowns in his eight-catch, 94-yard performance, and was even left uncovered at times while the Steelers defense was struggling to adjust to certain looks.
Quarterback Tom Brady finished with 288 yards passing with four touchdowns, completing 25 of 32 in his team's 28-21 win.
"As long as we keep running three tight end sets, we’ll be real happy," 49ers tight end Garrett Celek said. "But I think it’s harder for defenses to scheme. They don’t know if we’re going to run it or we’re going to pass it. I think we have very viable options there."
One of those options is Vernon Davis, who was targeted by Kaepernick a team-high six times, finishing with three catches for 47 yards, including receptions of 19 and 20 yards on the fourth-quarter drive that resulted in Hyde's second touchdown. Celek finished with three catches, a new career high, for 40 yards, finishing behind Davis for the second-most on the team.
Pittsburgh won't be the only team adjusting. The 49ers, and their new zone-blocking scheme, will have some changes to make during the short week of preparation.
"It's a odd base defense, odd front team versus a four-down team in Minnesota," Kaepernick said. "It's a completely different scheme."
In addition to running the ball 39 times, the 49ers' used play action on 12 of Kaepernick's passing attempts. His 38.7 percent-rate of play-action usage is the most in the NFL, according to PFF.
Kaepernick completed 10 of 12 throws for 101 yards using play action, good for a passer rating of 101.7. Without it, he completed 7 of 14 for 64 yards with a rating of 62.8.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com