By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan couldn’t be happier with his latest offensive addition.
After signing former Redskins and Cowboys running back Alfred Morris to a one-year deal two weeks ago, Shanahan and the rest of the 49ers organization got their first look at what the the two-time Pro-Bowler had to offer in Saturday’s 23-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Morris didn’t disappoint.
“I was really pleased with how Alf [Morris] ran the ball,” Shanahan said on a conference call Sunday evening. “We could start seeing it during the week in practice. He was running the ball good in practice and I was very excited how it carried over into the game.”
Morris joined San Francisco two weeks ago in Houston as the 49ers participated in joint practices ahead of their second game of the preseason against the Texans. Over the course of that week, Morris was tasked with re-acclimating himself to Shanahan’s offense.
Morris did not play against Houston that weekend, but after a strong week of practice back in Santa Clara, the 49ers were ready to give the second-team All-Pro back a chance to start against the Colts.
In his first game as 49er, Morris shined. Putting up 84 yards on 17 carries, Morris emerged as San Francisco’s most productive running back this preseason. It’s also worth noting that Morris would have eclipsed the 100 yards rushing if not for an illegal formation penalty, which negated a 17-yard gain on his first touch.
By averaging nearly five yards per carry (4.9) Morris ranks second on the team in that statistic, only behind Raheem Mostert, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry in his only preseason appearance against Dallas.
But a high yards-per-carry rate isn’t even Morris’ most impressive attribute. According to Shanahan, what he noticed most about Morris’ game was what he was able to do in short-yardage situations.
“I was most impressed with some of the short-yardage runs,” said Shanahan. “I felt like we had an unblocked guy on a couple of those third-and-ones, we got him in the backfield and [Morris] was still able to get a yard for us and keep us out there so we could continue trying to score.”
In total, Morris was able to convert on three third-and-one situations. Two of which came on the 49ers third possession, which resulted in a Robbie Gould 27-yard field goal near the end of the second quarter. With Morris’ ability to keep the drive alive, the possession lasted 16 plays and took 7:44 off of the game clock until stalling out on Indianapolis’ 9-yard line.
Many of the running backs currently on the 49ers roster possess the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and bounce runs outside of the tackles. A prime example of this is tentative starter Jerick McKinnon, who was know in Minnesota for being a versatile pass catcher out of the backfield and a strong sideline runner.
Morris, on the other hand, has more of a bruising, bowling ball style of running that allows him to gain yardage after the initial point of contact. That, coupled with his patience at the line of scrimmage and willingness to let the play develop in front of him, make Morris exactly what the 49ers may need for the upcoming season.
“Alf can do all of it. His skillset is that Alf always gets a little bit more than you block him for,” said Shanahan. “I like that in all of our runners, but I do think he brings a little bit different dimensions to it with his size, his weight, he can carry people a little bit farther when they are unblocked and he gets a lot of explosive runs.”
Shanahan has had his fair share of experience in working with Morris. In 2012, Morris’ rookie season, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington. That year, Morris was the second-leading rusher in the NFL with 1,613 yards, only behind Adrian Peterson.
The next season, Morris picked up right where he left off as he ran for 1,257 yards. While that was Shanahan’s last year in Washington, the second-year San Francisco head coach seems optimistic that he’ll be getting an even more distinguished runner as his newest offensive addition.
“Everyone learns with experience and does better and Alf is probably the most humble human being I’ve been around in my life,” said Shanahan. “But, he was pretty damn good his rookie year right away at that stuff and his second year and those are the two years I was with him. So, if he’s gotten better in those areas, then that’s a good thing for us.”