Alfred Morris adds power to 49ers’ hobbled running game

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The 49ers may have found the running back they didn’t know they needed.

When Alfred Morris was a free agent this offseason, the 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon instead.

Morris is a veteran running back who played for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan from 2012 to 2013. In 2017, he played for the Dallas Cowboys. McKinnon is a career backup who played the first four seasons of his career with the Minnesota Vikings. Despite his lack of starting experience, the 49ers made McKinnon the sixth-highest paid running back in the league in terms of average annual salary.

Now, McKinnon is injured, and Morris is the 49ers’ starting running back — they signed him Aug. 14. He leads the team in rushing after playing only one preseason game. He gained 84 yards on the ground and ran harder than every other 49ers running back Saturday during their 23-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

“I was real pleased with how Alf ran the ball,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Sunday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “We could start seeing it during the week of practice, he was running the ball well and our O-line was blocking well. I was very excited how it carried over to the game. I would have been surprised if we didn’t run the ball well. I was real happy with that group as a whole.”

It was the running game’s first good performance of the preseason.

McKinnon played in just one game, rushed three times for minus-4 yards and strained his right calf three days later during practice. He hasn’t played since. The 49ers hope he returns for Week 1 of the regular season.

McKinnon’s backup, Matt Breida, played in one game, rushed once for 3 yards, separated his shoulder making a block and hasn’t played since. The 49ers hope he returns for Week 1.

Breida’s backup, Joe Williams, played in two games, rushed 19 times for 45 yards (only 2.4 per attempt), broke his rib and hasn’t played since. The 49ers don’t know when he will return.

All three of those running backs are young, unproven and small — about 200 pounds.

Morris is the opposite. He’s a veteran (29), he’s big (222 pounds) and has a track record of success in the NFL. He has rushed for 5,503 yards and scored 32 touchdowns during his career.

And his two best seasons came when he played under Shanahan, who was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins at the time. In 2012 and 2013, Morris ran for 2,888 yards and 20 touchdowns. He had a terrific feel for Shanahan’s outside-zone blocking scheme, and still does.

“Alf can do all of it,” Shanahan said. “Alf always gets a little bit more than you block him for. I like that in all 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. He gets a lot of explosive runs. He doesn’t always score the touchdown or get the long one, but he’s a very efficient runner. That’s why he’s had a lot of success in this league.”

Morris had success the first time he touched the ball Saturday afternoon. This was the opening play of the game for the 49ers’ offense. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handed off to Morris, who sidestepped a tackle in the backfield, cut upfield, ran through an arm tackle in the hole, ran through another arm tackle near the first-down marker, spun away from the free safety, tripped and fell forward for an extra 3 yards. A total gain of 18.

But, the run didn’t count. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin committed a 5-yard penalty by lining up in the wrong place before the snap.

So, Morris tried again the next play. This time, he gained 11 yards.

“It was nice to give Alf some lanes,” Shanahan said. “Those are the ones he looks the best to everyone else on, but I was most impressed with some of his short-yardage runs. We had an unblocked guy on a couple of those third-and-ones get him in the backfield and he still was able to get a yard for us and keep us out there so we could continue trying to score.”

Morris will play again Thursday night during the 49ers’ final preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Then, the 49ers will reduce their roster to 53 players Saturday, Sept. 1, and Morris will find out if he makes it.

The odds seem good.

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