The Gut Check No.488: Target the Tandem

The week, Matt Waldman teams with reader Zach Prieston to highlight the value of pursuing the 49ers running back tandem of Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida for your stretch run. 

This summer, I had the right idea but the wrong team.

When the Broncos hired former 49ers offensive coach Rich Scangarello to be its offensive coordinator, I envisioned the idea of a Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman split between Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay thanks to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's influence on Scangarello. Denver has split the workload to an extent, but Lindsay is earning the Devonta Freeman-level production whereas Royce Freeman is the complement.

It was common sense that San Francisco would split its workload, but the injuries made the projections cloudy. Coleman, Breida, and McKinnon all dealt with injuries at some point during the summer. I thought Breida was the most talented of the trio, but McKinnon had the fattest contract and signing Coleman as a free agent was a significant move.

By comparison, Denver seemed far more clear-cut. Fast-forward to October and there's greater clarity with the 49ers' offense. Now, the Breida-Coleman tandem has Mark Ingram II-Alvin Kamara fantasy potential, which could help those of you trying to solidify running back depth charts for the stretch run.

This is the thought of Footballguys subscriber Zach Prieston, who wrote Ryan Hester and me with this analysis. It's a bold move but you know how I like bold moves, so it made sense to share and explore further:

Both of your weekly articles—The Gut Check and Trendspotting—have been among my favorite weekly reads for the past three years. I have so much respect for your articles and in depth analysis.

In the first half of 2017, both of you saw the trend of Mark Ingram II-Alvin Kamara before anyone else did and provided analysis supporting the idea they both could finish as Top-10 RBs by the end of the year. I was fully sold on it and immediately traded for both of them in Week 7. I dominated rest of the year to make playoffs.

Sadly I lost in week 14 after Kamara left game with a concussion after earning seven PPR points on the first drive. As you can tell, it still hurts.

However, I kept both of them for 2018 and had a perfect 15-0 season—still can't believe it—and I have to give credit to you both for pre-draft and in-season articles that helped me along the way.

Anyway, the reason I brought up the 2017 Ingram-Kamara tandem is because I was doing a little digging into Breida-Coleman. Their production and their offense's efficiency offer an eerily similar start to what Kamara-Ingram earned with the Saints in 2017.

I think it's highly possible that Breida-Coleman could start producing fantasy RB1 numbers down the stretch:

Saints in 2017

  • No.2 in offense DVOA
  • No.8 in defense DVOA
  • 36.19 yards per drive
And when Shanahan was the offensive coordiator for Atlanta in 2016, Freeman finished as the No.6 RB and Coleman finished as No.18 RB.

Falcons in 2016
  • No.1 offense DVOA
  • No.26 in defense DVOA
Shanahan and the 49ers in 2019 through Week 6:
  • No.12 in offense DVOA
  • No.2 defense DVOA
As for the Coleman-Breida tandem, we have only seen two full games with them in the lineup, but production is promising.

Week 5:
  • Breida: 11 carries, 114 yds , 3 rec, 15 yds, 2 TDs (27.9 ppr)
  • Coleman: 16 carries, 97 yds, 1 TD (15.7 ppr)
  • Combined: 27 carries, 211 yds, 3 rec 15 yards, 2 TDs (43.6 ppr)
Week 6:
  • Breida: 13 carries, 36 yds , 4 rec 27 yds (10.3 ppr)
  • Coleman: 18 carries, 45 yds , 2 rec 16 yds, 1 TD (14.1 ppr)
  • Combined: 31 carries, 81 yds , 6 rec 43 yds, 1 TD (24.4 ppr)

Obviously the loss of linemen Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey had a big impact on rushing numbers for Week 6 but when they come back, Week 5's production is an indication that we may be seeing the next 2017 Kamara-Ingram this year with Coleman-Breida.

I noticed so many similarities in offense/defense numbers for the 2017 Saints and 2019 49ers. San Francisco has an elite defense and with Jimmy Garappolo coming off an ACL injury, it makes sense for 49ers to stick with a run heavy-offense.

I attached a chart of the offense efficiency numbers for the 2016 Falcons, 2017 Saints and 2019 49ers.

Data Key

Category Definition
TO/Dr Turnovers per drive.
FUM/Dr Fumbles per drive.
TOP/Dr Time of Possession per drive.
DSR Drive Success Rate--introduced in Footall Outsiders' 2005 Pro Football Perspectus, it measure the percentage of series that result in a first-down or touchdown (drives where teams take a knee at the end of halves are discarded from the calculation).
3Outs/Dr Three-and-outs (three plays and a punt) per drive.
Pts/RZ and TD/RZ Points per red-zone appearance and points per touchdown.
Avg. Lead The average lead at the beginning of each drive.

Analysis of RB-Heavy Teams

What stands out to me is the turnovers. If 49ers can get this issue under control and Garappolo becomes a more efficient passer, we'll see an increase in Yard per Drive, Points per Red-Zone Appearance and Touchdowns per Red-Zone Appearance, which could mean more production for their running backs.

I would love if one of you could do an in-depth on the idea that supports my theory that Breida/Coleman could both be RB1s during the final half of the 2019 season..

I would love to hear any initial thoughts on it too! Am I crazy about this theory?

Well, Zach, you did most of the work—and a nice job of it, too. Of course, the data will be noisy because we're comparing only three teams during isolated years. At least with Atlanta and San Francisco, you're comparing two offenses that the same coach implemented.

The 2016 Falcons and 2019 49ers share the same philosophy of running the football. This year, the 49ers are the most productive team for running back fantasy value—averaging 33.1 points per game after five games and second in raw points scored despite earning a bye-week before the other 10 teams atop the list.

In 2016, the Falcons were the most productive team for running back fantasy value—averaging 26.3 fantasy points per game and outscoring the next-best running back squad—the New Orleans Saints—420.3 fantasy points to 400.4. This indicates that the backs that are on the field for San Francisco are going to produce as long as the offensive line isn't decimated.

While neither injury for McGlinchey nor Staley is a season-ender, we're unlikely to see them for another 4-6 weeks, at least. Despite the health of the offensive line, the 49ers have remained the top-scoring unit for backs during the past three weeks and Staley has been out since Week 2.

The Schedule

It's also notable that the 49ers' production hasn't come against only the easiest rushing defenses. The Bengals, Browns, and Rams may be No.2, No.6, and No.9 in running back fantasy points allowed, but the Steelers and Buccaneers are among the stingiest at 22nd and 30th, respectively. The Buccaneers are the only team that stifled the 49ers attack and the season-opener is infamous for generating false positives and false negatives.

Even so, San Francisco's remaining schedule is promising for running back production. Here are the remaining teams and their fantasy points allowed to the position, thus far:

  • Washington: 21.9 per game (seventh-most)
  • Carolina: 18.7 per game (seventeenth-most)
  • Arizona (twice): 18 per game (nine-least, but Atlanta got healthy against them and the Cardinals offense faced some porous passing defenses, which influenced game scripts away from the run)
  • Seattle: 19.2 per game (sixteenth-most)
  • Green Bay: 23.4 per game (fourth-most)
  • Baltimore: 18.6 per game (eighteenth-most)
  • New Orleans: 14.3 per game (fifth-least)
  • Atlanta: 20.1 per game (thirteenth-most)
  • Los Angeles Rams: 21.2 per game (ninth-most)

Six of the nine remaining teams on the fantasy-relevant schedule are in the top half of the league in running back points allowed for fantasy purposes—and the Cardinals and Ravens are more susceptible than the data implies because the Cardinals have faced weak defenses and still struggle in the red zone while the Ravens prefer to run the ball and also have a weak defensive unit.

The Scheme

Although Shanahan's philosophy remains the same as it was in Atlanta, there are differences with its execution. Both iterations of his offense emphasize the run and play-action passing and each scheme used a lot of window dressing with alignments and motion to create multiple disguises for a base set of effective plays.

Shanahan is molding his scheme to suit its talents. Garappolo is a more mobile quarterback than Matt Ryan and we're seeing some option plays in short-yardage situations. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is out of commission, but they're still using 21 personnel (two backs and a tight end) by making George Kittle the fullback.

Shanahan is a creative game-planner who comes up with different ideas each week for his opponents. He's even tricky about how they categorize their plays. Several weeks ago, Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor J Moyer posted a 49ers' run play that was an unusual application of a counter—a gap play where linemen pull to open a crease.

Moyer, a surgeon in-training, coached high school football in the Bay Area for seven years—specializing heavily in the run game. He immediately noted the subtlety of the blocking and picked on the play being an unusual counter. Ted Ngyuen of the Athletic is a fantastic football analyst who also coached high school football in the same area.

Ngyuen originally asked Kyle Jusczyk about the play and was told it was split zone but the defense disrupted the play and Matt Breida made the most of it. However, Chris Brown of Smart Football and former NFL offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz concurred with Moyer based on the specific blocks. The theory is that the 49ers know other teams read analysis like Ngyuen's and preferred not to specifically identify the play as a counter so opponents wouldn't key on it.

The point of this is that Shanahan is known for his zone scheme but has infused this offense with a lot of gap plays as well as subtle changes that, at times, can even be perceived as "happy accidents" when they are actually planned. You might argue that if a high school coach, a former high school quarterback-turned-analyst, and former NFL lineman can spot the difference then Ngyuen just missed it.

However, Ngyuen is a sharp student of the game and the difference in the specific interior blocks are so subtle that it's easy for anyone to miss or gloss over it the first time.

Opposing defenses are still trying to "figure out" what the 49ers are doing in the same way it took 20-24 weeks for opponents to decipher Chip Kelly and Sean McVay's schemes. The difference between the three coaches is that Shanahan has been an NFL offensive coach for a lot longer than Kelly and McVay and has proven that he can adjust as well.

Don't expect Shanahan to be the reason this running game falters down the stretch.

The Players

On the basis of talent alone, Breida is a more complete talent than Coleman. He's a superior inside runner with excellent skill in the zone game.

He sets up his blockers with greater refinement and has better short-area burst and change-of-direction quickness. Breida also runs with superior balance and creates more second- and third-chance opportunities with his decision-making and athletic profile.

However, Coleman's long speed and receiving skills are also tremendous assets. He has refined his skills running the outside zone in Atlanta and he's productive running gap schemes that ask him to set up and hit one crease rather than consider multiple options.

Expect a 60-40 split on the ground that favors Coleman but a 60-40 split for Breida as a receiver due to his assets with short-area creativity and long speed. Overall, I think we're going to see a 55-45 split in touches for Coleman, maybe even 50-50 between the pair.

Both have big-play upside, but Breida has less boom-bust risk than Coleman because he's a more versatile option in terms of run blocking applications and the receiving game. Still, it doesn't matter if you target both players—you're getting two RB2-caliber options with RB1 fantasy upside in any given week on one of the most stable and productive run offenses in the NFL.

Sure, Zach might turn out right about both of them delivering RB1 production down the stretch. The schedule leaves this possibility open.

Knowing that's the ceiling projection, the co-RB2 outcome is the midline expectation—and not a bad one at all if you consider that you probably can get one of these backs at an RB2 or RB3 price while maintaining the most productive parts of your roster infrastructure. There are many fantasy champions with roster profiles that include a pair of RB2s and if you can get the stability of one highly productive rush offense to use, you're often assured at least one productive option each week.

The downside? Coleman and/or Breida gets hurt and your back to Raheem Mostert and/or Jeffery Wilson. Still, if you need to make moves to acquire backs and no one is coming off the big names, adding Coleman and/or Breida while supplementing your roster with Moster or Wilson as an all-in strategy with the 49ers backfield for your RB-poor squad could be a bold but workable measure that leads to success.

Thanks to Zach for supplying the idea and most of the leg work.

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