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Iupati and Boone: Guards on Point

Posted Oct 22, 2012

Two of the biggest reasons for the San Francisco 49ers having the second-best rushing attack in the NFL through seven weeks are the team’s pair of mauling guards who line up next to center Jonathan Goodwin.

Both third-year starter Mike Iupati and first-year starter Alex Boone have each played a major role in opening running lanes for the 49ers ground attack.

It was more than apparent in the team’s 13-6 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Both linemen were consistently getting to the second level of Seattle's defense to block linebackers and defensive backs. As a result, San Francisco picked up 175 rushing yards against one of the league’s stingiest rush defenses.

It was also noticeable to Jim Harbaugh, who made complimentary statements for both players on Monday.

“I thought the guard play this past game was top notch,” the 49ers coach said. “Both of those guys, Mike and Alex Boone had their best or close to their best games, which is saying a lot because they’ve had good games.

“Upon further review we had to really look at it and say that both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone had excellent games. The more you watch the tape, the more you appreciated that aspect of it.”

Frank Gore, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader, also has a pretty good vantage point for what his guards are able to do in the run game. Behind his offensive line, Gore ranks fifth in the NFL with 601 yards. Gore is 58 yards behind league leader Arian Foster, who’s carried the ball 168 times to Gore’s 103 carries this season.

“Everybody sees it, they’re doing a great job, making my job a lot easier,” Gore said. “Those are some big, tough guys.”

But the eighth-year veteran didn’t stop there.

“I think this is the best our offensive linemen have played,” said the 49ers running back  who’s  surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in five of his seven seasons.

When it was brought up to Gore that the 49ers rank first in the NFL in yards per carry with 5.9 yards per rush, the 49ers running back started nodding his head immediately.

“That’s what tells it all right there,” Gore said.

If it not for RGIII, the San Francisco 49ers would be the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL.

But because of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, one of the most athletic quarterbacks in recent history, San Francisco is eight yards behind first-place Washington.

The 49ers are also No. 2 in yards per game (176.6), which is 1.1 yards per game behind the Redskins.

Helping the 49ers stay near the top of the league’s rushing rankings like they’ve been all year has been the consistent play of Iupati and Boone.The 49ers repeatedly ran inside traps against the Seahawks in the second half last week, a sign of trust in the team’s interior linemen to win in the trenches.

“That was fun, it was us,” Iupati said. “That’s football, smash-mouth football.”

Boone enjoyed the repeated inside trap calls because it fit Gore’s natural, between-the-guard running ability.

“I think that’s a staple for us,” said Boone, the team’s converted 6-foot-7 guard. “Frank’s a strong A-gap runner, so anytime we can get him in between the tackles it’s his bread and butter.”

Boone's transformation to guard is one of the best stories of the 2012 team.

Not only is Boone succeeding whlle playing at an unfamiliar position, the former tackle has been able to transform himself into a top guard after coming into the league undrafted.

“To his credit, he’s taken his opportunity, his talent, his work ethic, and also a great attitude,” Harbaugh said. “And then he’s got it. And I think it’s a great lesson for all the young players, individual players, that working hard, doing it with a great attitude, a team attitude, you figure it out. You get it. And he’s a wonderful example of that.”

Attitude is certainly something that sets Iupati and Boone apart from other linemen. Both players embrace a team-first mindset and both set out to play impose their physicality.

In particular, Harbaugh sees Iupati as a player with a high enjoyment level for the physical aspect of his job.

“He’s a very strong man that plays very physical,” the 49ers coach summed up of the team’s No. 17 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. "It’s talent. It’s attitude. It’s a lot of those things. But, he’s unique in that he is as big, as fast, as quick twitch as he is. And also secretly likes it to come down to just that, the physical nature of it.”

Under the guidance of offensive line coaches Mike Solari and Tim Drevno, Harbaugh sees steady improvement from the third-year player.

Iupati, however, is modest about the strides he’s made in 39 consecutive starts to begin his career.

“I can’t say I’m better,” he said. “I’m still working.”

Iupati and Boone will continue to take strides heading into this week’s test, a "Monday Night Football" matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

“They play outstanding defense – very dangerous offensively,” Harbaugh said of the 4-3 Cardinals, who are one game back of the 49ers. “A team that we know. They know us. Have a lot of respect for the Cardinals.”

Arizona’s offensive line features former 49ers draft pick Adam Snyder, the player Boone replaced in the starting lineup at right guard. With injuries to both tackles, the Cardinals have allowed league-high 35 sacks, nine more than second-place Green Bay.

Meanwhile, the 49ers have to limit hits on their own quarterback. The team’s 20 sacks allowed ranks fourth in the NFL.

“It’s a challenge for everybody,” Harbaugh said of limiting sacks and quarterback hits. “In this league, call it a struggle, call it a challenge. Every single week, that’s a challenge and an opportunity for both teams. Both teams are faced with the challenge of protecting their passer and both teams have the opportunity to get to the opposer’s passer. It’s a test of wills on sides, protecting and putting pressure on the passer.”

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