If 49ers keep getting pushed around, Chase Young isn’t going to fix anything

The 49ers’ three-game losing streak has coincided with struggles running the ball and stopping the run.

A bye week that will serve as a litmus test for the 49ers included a big deal for edge rusher Chase Young to join a defensive line already stacked with big names, big salaries, and big expectations.

Young’s most valuable asset is his pass-rushing ability, and the 49ers are hoping for a spark when they face Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville on Nov. 12.

Perhaps Young can provide that, allowing Nick Bosa to do more damage at the end of games with sacks rather than simply putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks for a $33 million average salary.

However, the issue that has hampered the 49ers the most during their three-game slide to 5-3 has been more fundamental and primal. Coach Kyle Shanahan believes in throwing the first punch, and the left jab in football is found in the running game on both sides of the ball.

If the 49ers don’t improve on what they did earlier this season and the previous two years in those areas, the blame will fall on quarterback Brock Purdy and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. The 23-year-old quarterback and the 54-year-old assistant, on the other hand, would be bystanders to what amounts to an attack-induced personality disorder.

Remember last season’s interesting stat about every regular-season opponent losing the week after playing the 49ers? Perhaps it was a fluke, but it was more likely due to being the tougher team on both sides of the ball — an identity forged in running the ball and stopping the run.

For what it’s worth, after playing the 49ers, this year’s opponents are 4-3.

We revisit the first series against Cincinnati. Christian McCaffrey gains eight yards on first down and one yard on second down to set up a third-and-1 situation. Kyle Juszczyk is sacked for a loss of yardage, and the 49ers punt.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the first three-and-out of the season after scoring six touchdowns and a field goal and losing a fumble at the opponent’s 12-yard line.

On their first drive, the Bengals released Joe Mixon for 20 yards to the 49ers’ 11-yard line, and on their second possession, they gained 13 yards to the 2.

By the end of the game, Mixon had 87 yards on 16 carries, while Cincinnati had 134 yards on 27 attempts.

During their three-game losing streak, the 49ers have rushed for 286 yards, averaging 95.3 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. In comparison, they gained 782 yards on 173 carries in the first five games, averaging 150.4 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.

McCaffrey still leads the NFL in rushing yards with 652, but the going has been tougher since the 40-12 win over Dallas. He came into that game with 459 yards and a 5.7 average per carry, but in the last four games, he has 153 yards total and a 2.7 average per rush.

A solid running attack based on outside zone runs has expanded to include more gap and power runs, while the 49ers have been hurt by penalties and getting behind the sticks.

“I know that ever since I’ve been a 49er, outside zone has been our No. 1 thing — we’ve put ourselves in some bad positions,” George Kittle, the tight end, said. “It’s difficult to run the ball when you’re facing first-and-20 or second-and-15. We become too one-dimensional when we have to rely on the pass, and one of the best things we do is run the football, but we’ve put ourselves in situations where we can’t.”

Shanahan has been hesitant to take McCaffrey off the field — twice he has played every snap of the game — while Elijah Mitchell rests and Deebo Samuel is out with a hairline shoulder fracture.

The loss of Trent Williams, a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle, has been felt. He has missed the last two losses and played against Cleveland and premier end Myles Garrett on one leg after suffering an ankle sprain early in the season. Williams is expected to return after the bye week.

Williams can’t do it alone, as left guard Aaron Banks is out with turf toe and will miss at least one game, if not more. D.J. Reader of the Bengals and Dalvin Tomlinson of the Browns had their way with the 49ers’ interior line, which includes center Jake Brendel and right guard Spencer Burford, in their losses to Cincinnati and Cleveland, respectively.

Shanahan, who values the physicality that a high total of rushing attempts represents, said there were missed opportunities against the Bengals even without Williams.

“We haven’t been able to create as much space in the run game, and I got away from it a little bit there in the second half,” he said.

The 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Kansas City’s Damien Williams in the Super Bowl following the 2019 season, but they have allowed 368 yards (122.7 yards per game) after allowing 321 and 3.7 in their previous five wins.

On the drive for the game-winning field goal, Cleveland, led by P.J. Walker at quarterback, gashed the 49ers for 14- and 22-yard runs by Jerome Ford. Before the Bengals and Mixon got going, Minnesota got some early yards (34 yards on six carries) from Alexander Mattison, giving Kirk Cousins some breathing room.

Young was acquired for a third-round draft pick by the 49ers, but he will not be a key figure in their run defense. Quarterbacks will not fall unless the 49ers stop the run first.

“Something I learned growing up in the NFL is that you have to earn the right to rush the passer, and you do that by playing well on the ground,” general manager John Lynch said. “We haven’t done well enough there. We have to do that, and then we’ll have plenty of ability and options as pass rushers to start putting this together.”

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