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Win over Arizona overshadowed by continued run woes

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers showed poise, pragmatism, and residency in their 36-26 win over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday.

Those are characteristics that have served them well all season — the characteristics of a playoff team in the NFL.

And in overcoming their own failures to win Sunday, they put themselves a win or two away from effectively clinching a playoff berth — the team’s first since 2013.

But with the toughest stretch of the season looming — three straight games against division leaders (Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans) — fighting through self-made adversity isn’t much more than character-building. It’s a momentary feel-good story.

It’s clear amid the 49ers’ underwhelming three-game stretch that they need to get back to their foundation.

They need to re-establish their identity.

“We gotta get more production from the run game,” center Weston Richburg told me.

Even in this pass-happy era of the NFL, Kyle Shanahan’s wide-zone offense is predicated on the run game. Everything is built off of it.

But for the last three games — two against Arizona and the Monday-night thriller against Seattle — the 49ers have been unable to move the ball on the ground.

The 49ers survived against Arizona. Without an effective run game, they opted to turn into a Big 12 team — to follow Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury’s lead and turn into a spread offense. The Niners like to put two backs in the backfield with a tight end on the end of the line, but after falling behind 16-0, they frequently lined up with an empty backfield.

It got the job done.

There’s a fine line between being pragmatic and winging it, though. The 49ers likely stayed on the right side of it Sunday — they adjusted and did what they had to do to win.

But you cannot ask Jimmy Garoppolo to win you every game in the final moments. He’s not Russell Wilson. He’s good, but not transcendent. Putting that burden on his shoulders at this juncture of his career is asking for trouble and a mess of interceptions.

Against better teams, San Francisco’s version of a mid-game reinvention won’t work. And the Niners have better teams are on deck for the rest of the season, with only one or two exceptions.

“If we’re able to get the ball moving on the ground, we can start opening up that playbook a lot more for play-action stuff,” right guard Mike Person said. “It’s huge. we have such a deep, deep play-action playbook. To get that stuff going, we have to make it happen on the ground.”

The problem: some of the key players in the Niners’ run game are perplexed as to why it’s not working.

After all, the Niners have run the ball with aplomb against every kind of defense, with all kinds of personnel, this season.

The lack of a viable run game is a near-existential problem for the Niners going forward.

I’ll concede that the Niners players are too smart to give away the intricate details of the gameplan to some reporter, but when I was told time and time again by Niners that they had to “look at the film” to explain the run-game woes, I didn’t pick it up as fake ignorance.

They better hope they find the answers they are looking for on the film.

Some Niners — to their credit — offered theories. Person said he’s seeing opponents overloading the box against the Niners — committing seven, eight, nine players to stopping the run.

I’m seeing the same thing from the press box.

I bet Shanahan sees the same thing on film.

Arizona established that tactic in the teams’ Halloween game — adding extra men to the strong side (the tight-end side) of the formation, in particular. They completely sold out to stop the run and it nearly won them the game. Seattle, at least from my perspective, copied that plan in last Monday’s game.

And, of course, Arizona went back to the tactic again Sunday, only this time with a bit more window dressing. They’re well-coached.

The overload theory lends itself to another argument I’ve heard made — though this one is mostly by fans: the Niners’ run-game woes are tied to the absence of George Kittle, an elite run-blocker on the edge of the line.

Kittle’s backup, Ross Dwelley, caught two touchdowns Sunday, but he isn’t much of a blocker. It makes sense that defenses are bringing more defenders to his side of the field.

But is the absence of a great tight end enough to explain why the Niners, after running for 232 yards against Carolina on Oct. 27 — Kittle’s last healthy game — have run for 222 yards total in the three games since? Or why they’re averaging 2.8 yards per carry since Halloween? Or why they only picked up 34 yards on 19 carries Sunday?

I think the world of Kittle — who is expected to play next Sunday against Green Bay — but that’s a hard sell. It’s a particularly tough argument to make when you consider that the Niners were still able to be an elite running team despite starting two backup tackles for a month — a sixth-round rookie and a guy signed out of a now-defunct minor league, no less.

Perhaps there’s nothing nefarious — nothing larger — going on. Maybe the Niners’ had a couple of bad games. Three in a row is suspect, but everyone is allowed a lull — so long as they don’t last too long. (And going 2-1 in a lull awesome.)

Niners right tackle McGlinchey thinks the run-game issues are just execution issues up front on the line. He told me that Shanahan and the Mikes — pass and run game coordinators Mike LaFleur and Mike Daniel — schemed up an outstanding plan to combat what they expected from Arizona.

“There were a couple of things that we could have capitalized in the run game early on that probably could have taken control of the game,” McGlinchey told a group of reporters outside his locker after the game.

But no matter what the problem is — no matter what answers the film brings — the truth remains that Sunday’s performance has to be a one-off. The Niners need to find a way to get back to running the ball.

They need to find their identity once again.

Because in a big game — like the ones coming up in the next few weeks and in the playoffs — a team without an identity in a team that’s going to find a way to lose.

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