Coach Jim Harbaugh runs a version of the West Coast offense that he’s modified for new quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s exceptional running ability and comfort operating in the modified shotgun offense called the “pistol” that he used in college at Nevada. The 49ers rank No. 13 in scoring, No. 12 in yards, No. 2 in rushing yards per game and No. 2 in average yards per rush.
Halfback Frank Gore (5-9, 217) had one of his better seasons at an advanced age (29) for his position and was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl while running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He finished No. 10 in the NFL with 1,214 rushing yards and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. Those were the third-highest and fourth-highest totals, respectively, of his eight-year career. He’s better running between the tackles but still has some ability to bounce outside when he gets the chance.
Gore's backup, Kendall Hunter, is out for the season after sustaining an ankle injury in late November. The player replacing him, second-round draft pick LaMichael James (5-9, 195), is a more dynamic and dangerous runner. James ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last spring and was one of the most explosive open-field players in the draft but didn’t get his first carry until a month ago. He’s averaging 4.6 yards on 27 carries.
Kaepernick rushed for more than 4,000 yards in college running the read option, and Harbaugh calls the read option occasionally, though not as much as Washington did with Robert Griffin III. Kaepernick, a long strider with great size (6-4 5/8, 233) and a 4.53-second 40 at the combine, ranked No. 4 among NFL quarterbacks in rushing (415 yards, 6.6-yard average), though some of that came on scrambles.
The 49ers have one of the NFL’s best run blockers in left guard Mike Iupati, who is athletic even though he has a road grader’s size (6-5, 331).
The 49ers rank No. 27 in passing yards per game but No. 7 in average yards per attempt.
When quarterback Alex Smith sustained a concussion in Week 11 against St. Louis, Kaepernick replaced him and never left the lineup. He has exceptional size and athleticism and a strong throwing arm, though he’s not as sophisticated as Smith at reading zone coverages. This will be the second-year pro’s eighth start — he’s 5-2. He doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the NFL’s rankings in passer rating, but if he did his 98.3 rating would place him No. 7. Scouts say he has excellent overall arm talent and regard him as a good decision maker (10 touchdowns, three interceptions), though Harbaugh keeps things relatively simple with an offense built around the running game, play-action passes and the quarterback playing it safely regardless of whether it’s Kaepernick or Smith. Kaepernick is most comfortable in the pistol, where he’s not lined up as deep as in the traditional shotgun.
Where Smith’s favorite receiver was tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick’s chemistry appears best with Michael Crabtree (6-1, 214), who has a career-high 85 receptions (13.0-yard average), including 41 in the seven games Kaepernick started. Crabtree runs only OK but is a big target with strong, excellent hands.
Davis remains their most gifted receiver because of his great combination of size (6-3, 250) and breakaway speed, but after his strong start this season defenses have done more to take him out of games. His 41 receptions (13.4-yard average) is his lowest of the last four years.
The 49ers lost their No. 2 receiver, Mario Manningham, to a blown out knee earlier this month, which though not back-breaking is a blow. Randy Moss (28 catches, 15.5-yard average) isn’t nearly the player he was several years ago but still has the ability to get jump balls and sneaky deep speed if a defense falls asleep on him.
The 49ers’ wild card is backup tight end Delanie Walker (6-0, 242), who’s short for his position but an excellent athlete with the ability to make plays down field (21 catches, 16.4-yard average).
Joe Staley (6-5, 315) was voted to this year’s Pro Bowl and is about the same level as former Packers left tackle Chad Clifton. Some scouts think right tackle Anthony Davis (6-5, 323) gets distracted by trying to prove how nasty he is. Right guard Alex Boone (6-8, 300) is the closest thing to a weak link on the line, but he isn’t bad.