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Colin Kaepernick or not, 49ers can't win with abysmal run defense

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- In his first start since Week 8 of last season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick offered signs of life for the team's stagnant offense. He completed a long touchdown pass, wasn't afraid to take shots down the field, made some things happen in the run game and wisely protected himself from taking big hits.

Kaepernick was also mostly mediocre or worse in the passing game, repeatedly missing open receivers. For a guy who hasn't played in a regular-season game in so long and who wasn't all that effective when we last saw him, Kaepernick was about what you'd expect.

But Kaepernick doesn't play defense. Stopping the run isn't part of Kaepernick's job description. Apparently, it isn't part of the defense's, either.

Bills running back LeSean McCoy went over 100 yards in the first half alone and finished with 140 yards on 19 carries to go with three touchdowns. As a team, Buffalo stampeded for 312 yards and 4 touchdowns on 44 attempts. The result was a 45-16 loss -- the Niners' fifth defeat in a row after a win in the season opener.

Of the many things the 49ers sought to fix with the extended break after a Thursday night game the previous week, the general lack of offensive productivity was near the top of the list. That's why coach Chip Kelly decided to go with Kaepernick in place of Blaine Gabbert at quarterback and use rookie Joshua Garnett as the starting right guard.

Given what happened Sunday, nothing should have been a bigger focus than fixing San Francisco's porous run defense. Throughout the week, Kelly and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil repeatedly pointed to the need to stop the run. They talked about it and, presumably, worked on it in practice. With Buffalo's red-hot run scheme on the other side, it figured to be a challenge.

"Obviously, the biggest thing that we need to focus on is stopping the run," O'Neil said. "We’ve got to do a better job there, and it’s technique, it’s tackling, it’s doing a better job executing scheme."

Turns out, it was the thing that mattered most, and the Niners once again weren't up to the task.

No matter the situation, the Niners again sprung leaks. On third-and-20 in the first half, the Bills seemed willing to concede the drive with a draw to McCoy, who promptly evaded some poor ankle-tackle attempts and gain 24 yards for a first down. The large holes and easy chunks of yards looked like a replay of the previous four weeks, only with a different cast on the other side.

San Francisco entered Sunday with the league's second-worst run defense in terms of rushing yards allowed per game. Since Week 2, the Niners have been the worst in the NFL. In the past five games, the Niners have allowed the likes of Fozzy Whittaker and Christine Michael to run for 100 yards or more. With McCoy going over the century mark Sunday, the Niners have allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of their past five contests. Dating back to 1960, they had never done that in more than three consecutive games.

Kaepernick, meanwhile, tried to keep the Niners in the game. In the first half, he completed 8 of his first 11 passes for 135 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown to wide receiver Torrey Smith. When his accuracy waned in the second half, Kaepernick did some damage in the run game.

All told, Kaepernick rushed for 66 yards on eight carries and proved a more dangerous threat in that regard than Gabbert. But the 49ers didn't lose their fifth straight game because of what Kaepernick could gain on the ground. That happened because of what Buffalo could.

And if the Niners don't find a solution to slow down opposing run games soon, it won't matter if it's Kaepernick, Gabbert or Joe Montana in his prime playing quarterback.