Tre Boston had an angle. After 49ers running back Tevin Coleman burst through the line and up the Carolina sideline, the Panthers safety had Coleman lined up for a tackle at the 20. Then, Coleman just pulled away to finish his 48-yard, second-quarter touchdown, reaching 21.09 mph.
It was the third-fastest speed a ball carrier reached in Week 8 (Carolina back Christian McCaffrey ecclipsed that with a 21.11-mph scamper in the third quarter), and Coleman’s third of four touchdowns on the day.
For his performance, the NFL announced on Tuesday morning that Coleman was named a finalist for this week’s FedEx Ground Player of the Week award. He was the only running back with multiple touchdowns on the week, and after leading a 49ers ground attack that racked up 232 rushing yards in a 51-13 win, Coleman is poised to take the lead in a new-fangled-yet-old-fashioned offense.
“Him taking the edge and getting vertical is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, and he does it with zero regard for his body,” tight end George Kittle said. “I love watching him play.”
Even before Matt Breida went down with an ankle injury on Sunday, head coach Kyle Shanahan had Coleman pegged as a starter. Even before that, Coleman was looking at the very least like a No. 2, before Jerick McKinnon went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason for the second year in a row.
Shanahan, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and passing-game coordinator Mike LaFleur were all with the Atlanta Falcons when they drafted Coleman No. 73 overall in 2015, and he flourished under Shanahan’s system. It’s why Shanahan was so keen to pick Coleman up in March.
“Tevin is very similar to how he was when I was in Atlanta,” Shanahan said after the game. “Just his skillset and everything, doesn’t change.”
Shanahan said that Coleman has always had the skill set of a feature back, but he’s matured greatly since he scored 11 touchdowns for the Falcons in 2016. It’s why he’s been able to be so productive this season — 332 yards on 71 attempts in five games — despite limited carries and missing two weeks with an ankle injury, and despite seeing eight or more defenders in the box 35.21% of the time — fourth-most in the NFL.
“Tevin could play in any offense, so it really doesn’t matter,” Shanahan said. “We had some good looks today, and when Tevin has a good look, he can usually get it into the end zone.”
On Monday, Pro Football Focus came out with its weekly running back elusiveness rating — factoring in missed tackles forced and yards after contact per attempt — and Coleman wasn’t near the top. He was 45th, behind Raheem Mostert (10th) and Matt Breida (37th). That’s no knock on Coleman, but rather a testament to his speed (4.39 in the 40), the 49ers offensive line — he wasn’t touched during that 48-yard touchdown — and Shanahan’s playcalling and play design.
Despite San Francisco’s 7-25 record over Shanahan’s first two seasons at the helm, his ability to scheme his receivers and running backs open hasn’t been questioned. The remarkable part of Shanahan’s offensive accumen is that, in an age where running backs have been sacrificed at the altar of the passing game, San Francisco is 7-0 for the first time since 1990 while relying on its ground game.
The 49ers have three running backs with 40 or more carries, and all of them are averaging 4.7 yards per carry or more, the only team in the NFL with three backs in the top 15 in that category. As cornerback Richard Sherman was quick to point out, San Francisco has done that largely without its two starting tackles.
Shanahan’s play design has the NFL’s 24th passing offense sitting at eighth in terms of yards per attempt, but the real fun is on the ground, where trap blocking, counters and even fake blocks have the 49ers averaging 181.1 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL) on an NFL-high 38.9 rushing attempts. Only three other teams in the league average over 30. If San Francisco keeps pace, it will have the most rushing attempts (623) by a single team in a 16-game season since 1984. Only two of the 37 teams in NFL history that have cracked the 600-rush mark did it after the year 2000, and one of them was the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (618), who rushed 38.6 times per game.
On Sunday, Coleman had 118 yards from scrimmage and a career-best four touchdowns (three on the ground), which tied him with Jerry Rice (1990 and 1993) and Billy Kilmer (1961) as the only players in 49ers history to accomplish the feat. Rice — so far — is the only 49er with five TDs in a game.
Sunday was just Coleman’s first 100-yard game of the season (105 yards on 11 attempts). While the addition of slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders and the imminent return of left tackle Joe Staley could portend a greater role for the passing game, what Shanahan showed on Sunday was that the air attack is in service of the ground game, and if Coleman is at the head of that ground game, Sunday won’t be the last time he’ll deliver.
“He can fly, man,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said of Coleman. “He did everything today. Tev was awesome.”
Each Tuesday morning of the regular season, through Thursday at 3 p.m. ET, fans can visit NFL.com/FedEx or the NFL Twitter page to vote for their favorite performances of the week, with FedEx awarding a $2,000 donation in the winning players’ names to The USO.