Preseason showcasing power rushing identity

The 49ers are now showing us what they've been telling us all along this year: They are going to be a power rushing team. How powerful? Well, entering Friday's exhibition finale against the San Diego Chargers, the Niners lead the NFL in preseason rushing, and their backup running back is the league's individual rushing leader.

Those are pretty good indications San Francisco is succeeding this summer in what it set out to do on offense.

"We haven't arrived yet, but we're definitely on track," rookie Glen Coffee told SFI on Tuesday. "The main thing we want to do now is carry over this success we've had during the preseason into the regular season."

To be sure, there has been plenty of success on the ground for San Francisco since the exhibition season began Aug. 14. The 49ers lead the NFL with an average of 170.7 yards per game rushing.

With one game remaining in the preseason, it's clear that the new identity of San Francisco's offense has been established.

"Our main focus as far as running the ball is just to physically dominate the line of scrimmage," Coffee said. "We've definitely been able to do that."

They've been able to do it so far without one of their most physical run blockers, 330-pound left guard David Baas, who missed the first three preseason games with a foot injury. Baas returned to practice this week and could play Friday against the Chargers.

The Niners were able to rush for 101 yards and average four yards a carry against one of the NFL's best defensive front sevens last week against the Dallas Cowboys without Baas or right tackle Adam Snyder, who missed the 20-13 victory at the new Cowboys Stadium with a knee sprain.

The 49ers rushed for 136 yards in their exhibition opener against Denver and then unloaded on the Oakland Raiders for 275 yards rushing the next week. Besides rushing production, the common denominator in those three exhibition games? Each finished as a San Francisco victory.

Even with some of their top linemen missing, Coffee and San Francisco's other backs have flourished in new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's system that intends to feature a power rushing attack.

Coffee leads the NFL with 230 yards rushing, and the 49ers' production on the ground has them 12th in the league in total offense.

The 49ers ranked 23rd in total offense last season, their highest finish of the past five years. They're looking to take another step forward this year with a run-first approach that pounds opponents physically while it demoralizes them mentally.

"I think we're fitting the style of play that we want to the personnel that we have," Raye said. "What we're trying to establish during this period of time is a mental and physical style of play. We're having some success doing it, but that's an ongoing process."

Raye joined the team in January as San Francisco's seventh offensive coordinator in seven years. He said the 49ers are striving for a balanced offense this summer, but balance for them in 2009 "will be closer to 60-40 run-pass," he said.

The 49ers have kept the ball on the ground for 53 percent of their offensive plays so far during the preseason. Last season, just 41 percent of their offensive snaps resulted in rushing plays.

Besides Coffee, who is averaging 6.1 yards per carry, rookie Kory Sheets also is making an impression this summer. Sheets is sixth in the NFL with 144 yards rushing and has scored three touchdowns, including two during last week's victory in Dallas that improved San Francisco's preseason record to 3-0.

The 49ers also got 97 yards rushing on 14 carries from Michael Robinson in their Week 2 win over the Raiders, when San Francisco rushed for 275 yards. Those are Robinson's only carries of the preseason.

The 49ers have been doing damage on the ground without much contribution from lead back Frank Gore, whom the 49ers are resting for the regular season. Gore has just seven carries so far this summer, but he'll be the main man in San Francisco's offense once the real games begin in September.

"The bell cow in this operation will be No. 21," said Raye, referring to Gore by his uniform number. "This ball park is going to be run by No. 21."

San Francisco's emphasis on running could be more problematic for opponents than one might expect in this NFL era dominated by passing offenses.

"If we had a different style of players, we may be in the mode of going in the direction of what is fashionable – spread, or whatever you want to call it," Raye said. "But I think our advantage is that you have to prepare to play us in a physical mode after playing people that spread out and go 70-30 or 65-35 throw and pushing the ball and all of a sudden, you've got two days, Wednesday and Thursday, to prepare for us (during the regular season) that is a little bit more direct, straight ahead, no fair dodging."

While the rushing game has excelled, the 49ers have not shown the same kind of progress throwing the football. They rank 30th in the NFL in preseason passing offense while the run game has stolen the spotlight.

Shaun Hill, who last week was named the team's starting quarterback for the regular season, hasn't thrown a touchdown pass during the preseason. Hill completed only 9 of 17 passes for 79 yards against the Cowboys in his most extensive stint of the summer.

"We hang our hat on being a good running team. I don't think that's really any secret," Hill said. "But that definitely helps to open things up for us passing. With the offense as a whole, you need balance, you need to run and pass, and I think that is all starting to come together for us."

The run part certainly is coming together. The 49ers appear this summer to have considerably improved a rushing attack that finished 27th in the NFL last year. Now they have one more rehearsal to build upon that improvement before the real games begin.

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