Running back Frank Gore needs just 74 rushing yards to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third consecutive season, which would make him the first 49ers player in team history to do so, a fairly significant accomplishment considering the franchise's storied success.
No one on the 49ers current roster however needs to be told that their running back is special.
"As an offensive line, we love blocking for a guy like Frank because if we take care of the front five, he'll do the rest. I would take Frank over any linebacker or DB in the league," said right tackle Adam Snyder, who was also a third-round pick in 2005, drafted shortly after Gore. "Frank has shown over the last four years that he's one of the best running backs in the league."
Gore has commanded similar respect all across the NFL.
"I think what makes Frank a great running back is the fact that you can't pinpoint what type of running back he is," said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, prior to the 49ers October 19th game against New York. "He's a slasher. He's a downfield runner. He's patient. He's quick. He's elusive. He fits just about every category you can say about a running back, but you really can't pinpoint on how you need to attack him. He can be a finesse runner. He can be a power runner. When it comes to running backs, he definitely has all of the tools to be a great one."
But in the last two games, Gore's greatness has been mostly on the back burner. After easily reaching 106 yards on 18 carries against the Rams, Gore finished the Cowboys game with 14 carries for 26 yards, and the Bills game with 66 yards on 24 attempts. Previously ranking in the top five rushers in the NFL, Gore has now dropped to the ninth-ranked back in total rushing yards.
As head coach Mike Singletary explained earlier this week, the Dallas game was designed to emphasize the pass. But, given the poor weather expected for the Bills game, the promise for Gore to have a huge day was there for the taking.
In Buffalo, offensive coordinator Mike Martz dialed up five straight run plays at the start of the game for Gore, who netted just 12 yards on the five carries.
Still, it was enough to loosen up the Bills in the backend, leaving Shaun Hill his pick in who to throw the ball to as he found his three top receivers in Bryant Johnson, Jason Hill and Isaac Bruce for completions of 16, 15 and 18 yards on the team's opening scoring drive.
"When you have a running back like Gore, who is so dangerous in the running game, it opens opportunities down the field in the passing game and I think we established that last week in Buffalo," said Snyder. "You get them thinking about what we're doing, instead of going out and executing on defense. I think that's a huge key for the offense to have a guy like Frank, who can mess with the defense. If he gets on a roll, that opens up things for other guys and gives them the opportunities to make plays."
Given the road win, Gore's 2.8 average in Buffalo wouldn't have bothered him so much, had he not put the ball on the ground twice.
"I'm just upset about myself, not being the guy I'm supposed to be every week," said Gore. "I hate to be the cause of not winning the game, and last week, that was tough because my mistakes could have cost the game. Fortunately they didn't, and I got to be happy about the win."
Gore's timing with the offensive line has been a bit off. A moment's pause here or there and instead of a long run of 12, Gore likely could have taken a few runs to the house last week.
"I think I'm just so antsy," said Gore. "The more touches I get, the more in rhythm I feel. When you aren't really doing anything and you do get something, you are trying to really hit it and you do so before it really develops and you mess up. I really just have to let the game come to me I have to stop pressing."
General manager Scot McCloughan typically hears from his running back at least once a week.
"He's a very unique individual. He lives and breathes football 24/7, and so he'll call wanting an assessment of how he's playing and what I see that maybe he can do to be better. That's what you love about him. It matters to him. His passion for the game is very impressive, but even more so, he's committed to being the best he can be so that he can help this organization win games."
That will to constantly improve has also been noted by Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who trains with Gore in the off-season.
"He is a guy who is all about football. Everything that he does revolves around football," said Boldin. "We work out together and you see the way that the guy prepares. You see his love for the game. That's all he talks about - wanting to win, wanting to get better, and he does the things necessary to become a better player."
And there's no doubt Gore will respond, and play better in the final four games of the year, but he'll need one of his best performances of the season this Sunday to get over that 1,000-yard mark.
74 yards might not seem too tall of an order for a back like Gore, after all, he's surpassed at least that much in seven games this season. But the Jets boast one of the better run defenses in the NFL, allowing only 82.1 rushing yards per game for an overall 4th ranked run defense.
"They've got a bunch of big guys up front," said Gore. "Kris Jenkins really stands out as far as setting the tone of their defense. He's a focal point of their defense, and they're going to be real tough to run the ball against."
Gore is likewise the focal point of the 49ers offense, and thus typically the focal point of opposing defenses.
"It's been a tough second half of the season for me," admitted Gore. "Everyone is coming in here trying to stop me. Even in the passing game, I end up being a decoy for other guys to get open. 74 yards isn't much, but right now, every yard is tough."
While it's been tough on the 49ers back, Martz believes it's a direct correlation to a greatly reduced number of sacks in recent weeks.
"When teams face us, what is the first thing that they are going to take away? They are going to take 21 away, " said Martz." So when they line up in there and take 21 away, they aren't rushing the passer, now are they? That creates some good things for us in the passing game obviously."
Many opposing offenses have opted to abandon the run against the Jets all together, and instead attack a pass defense that ranks 30th in the league.
"Of course I want to run the ball, but if we have to throw it to win the game, I'll take the win any time," said Gore.
But Denver did both last week with Jay Cutler putting up 357 passing yards, while rookie Peyton Hills, the Broncos sixth choice at running back, enjoyed a 129-yard rushing day.
"We think we can do some things against them in the passing attack, but we also definitely want to work on our run game," said tight end Vernon Davis. "We have to keep Frank happy. We have to keep him moving. He's a big threat, to any team we play, so we have to get him his carries."
And carrying this 49ers offense is definitely something that Gore finds satisfying.
"As long as we are winning, I'm happy, but I feel like it's my job to help us get wins," said Gore.
"The last two weeks it hasn't felt like I've done everything I can do to help us win. I just need to stay calm, let the game to me and have fun. That's what this game is about."
Thursday's Practice Notes
Cornerback Nate Clements has missed his second day of practice with a hairline fracture in his thumb. Head coach Mike Singletary judged Clements' current status for Sunday's game against the Jets as "questionable." If Clements can't go, it would be the first game he has ever missed in his eight-year NFL career, also putting an end to a 116 game starting streak. Cornerback Donald Strickland or Tarell Brown would be the most likely candidates to start in his absence.
On the flip side, chances have improved of getting back Arnaz Battle as the receiver took a full practice on Thursday after being limited in practice all of last week and again on Wednesday. Battle has missed four games with a foot injury. As well as his contributions to the offense, Battle could also handle the punt return duties if Allen Rossum and Clements are out.
Rossum missed his second day of work with an ankle injury that kept him out of last week's game.
Safety Michael Lewis also returned to practice after sitting out Wednesday with an abdomen injury. Wide receiver Josh Morgan and safety Dashon Goldson remain limited.
According to Singletary, and OC Mike Martz, tackle Barry Sims could see some playing time at right tackle this week. Sims started at that spot from weeks three thru eight, in place of an injured Jonas Jennings. He then missed the next few weeks with an ankle injury, before returning to action on special teams only against the Cowboys. Sims has been replaced in the starting lineup for the last four weeks by Adam Snyder.
Singletary also promised that before season's end, linebacker Ahmad Brooks will be active and play in a game. Brooks was cut on Saturday, but re-signed on Tuesday after clearing waivers. It was a move designed to give the 49ers some additional help at wide receiver for Sunday's game in Buffalo by activating practice squad player Chris Hannon.
Putting a Sock in the Sacks
The 49ers offensive is still tied for second most sacks allowed in the NFL with 43 on the year, but in the last four and a half games, quarterback Shaun Hill has been taken down only 11 times, in comparison to 32 sacks over the first 7.5 games. On average, the 49ers are now allowing at least two fewer sacks per game.
"They've been playing great," said quarterback Shaun Hill. "Anytime the quarterback plays well at all, it has everything to do with how the offensive line has played. I think they've been playing unbelievable. I know that they're hungry to keep it going. "
"No pun intended on the hungry part," joked Hill.