SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh has made a coaching career out of bucking convention.
While the rest of football seems to be moving to more wide-open offense and spread formations, Harbaugh's success at both Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers has been built on power.
Instead of using as many little receivers as he can, Harbaugh has preferred to use formations with seven offensive linemen or three tight ends.
Whether it's because of injuries or new personnel, that philosophy is showing signs of changing in Harbaugh's fourth season as 49ers coach.
“I wouldn't categorize it,” Harbaugh said of the offense. “In terms of identity, we want to be about moving the football, picking up first downs, scoring points, scoring touchdowns.”
There's been more passing so far this season.
The 49ers (1-2) used three or more receivers on nearly three-quarters of their plays in last week's 23-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals after using those formations fewer than any other team a year ago.
The spread attack helped quarterback Colin Kaepernick lead two long touchdown drives to open the game but San Francisco failed to score after that and lost for the second straight week.
“There was some real positives there,” Harbaugh said. “I thought the receivers played extremely good. Some strong catches, run after the catch. Did a great job with ball-security. All those guys that were touching the ball. Colin, the whole team was competing. They played extremely hard. Colin made some big plays, extending plays, running with the football.”
The 49ers used three or more wide receivers on just 22 percent of their plays in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, including just three all season that had four or more wideouts.
They have used three receivers on nearly 60 percent of their plays through three games this season, including 14 with four receivers and 14 more with 5 last week against the Cardinals.
Part of that reliance on extra receivers had to do to injuries that sidelined tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald last week. But the 49ers also made a concerted effort this offseason to add more wide receivers after going much of last year with Anquan Boldin as the only reliable option at the position.
But with Michael Crabtree healthy after missing 11 games a year ago with an Achilles' injury and the additions of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington, the Niners have an abundance of threats outside that can add some variety to their attack.
“We have a lot of great receivers,” Kaepernick said. “It's going to depend on the mismatches.”
The flip side of the spread attack is that it neutralizes star running back Frank Gore, who had 10 yards on six carries against the Cardinals. Gore has carried the ball just 35 times in three games, a significant drop from his usual usage.
“Whatever works, I'm with it,” Gore said. “If it's passing, it's passing. If it's running, we run it. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
The spread formation has not led to those wins yet as the Niners have lost back-to-back games to Chicago and Arizona.
With Davis possibly back this week after sitting out against the Cardinals with an ankle injury, the 49ers might not use it again. But it is in their arsenal and opposing defenses will have to prepare for it.
“I don't think anything is surprising when you play against a Jim Harbaugh or Greg Roman team,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “They're going to use every weapon available to them. They're always working to gain an advantage. I wasn't surprised when they did it. It was one of those things you chuckle to yourself. They have another wrinkle now.”
NOTES: Davis was out at practice but did not participate in individual drills during the open media session. … RT Anthony Davis (hamstring) was back at practice after missing the first three games. … CB Tramaine Brock (toe) remains sidelined.