John Froschauer / The Associated Press

Frank Gore (21) was held in check against Seattle, which used strong safety Kam Chancellor near the line of scrimmage.

Nowhere to run for 49ers

Published: Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013 - 9:01 am

SANTA CLARA – This wasn't the blueprint for the 49ers' running game.

The team entered the season with arguably the best offensive line in the league, one that played together in all 19 games last year and features a 331-pound pulling guard, Mike Iupati, with the speed and quickness of a tight end.

It's led by a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who isn't shy about firing the ball downfield and keeping opposing safeties from inching toward the line of scrimmage.

Put those two elements together, and tailback Frank Gore was supposed to have roomy, avenue-like running lanes like he'd never seen in his first eight seasons with the 49ers.

Instead, Gore is averaging just 2 yards per carry and is 42nd in the NFL in total rushing yards.

Entering today's game against Indianapolis, he's hearing a question that was a refrain early in his career when he was the lone star of much lesser offenses: What's wrong with the running game?

The answer is the same as it was then: Defenses are stacked to stop him.

Burned badly by Kaepernick's feet in the playoffs, Green Bay was determined not to let that happen again in Week 1, loading eight defenders around the line of scrimmage.

The strategy worked, with Kaepernick limited to 22 rushing yards. But Gore was muffled, too, gaining just 44 yards on 21 attempts.

"They know in past years we have run the ball great," Gore said. "And you watch the film, you see eight, nine (defenders) in the box. That's one of the biggest things. But we've got to find a way. We've got to get it done."

Seattle used a similar approach. The Seahawks were confident in their cornerbacks' ability to play man-to-man defense against the 49ers' receivers and used strong safety Kam Chancellor, who at 232 pounds has linebacker size, near the line of scrimmage.

Gore had just 16 yards on nine carries, a 1.8-yard average.

The crowd noise didn't help. In a typical game, the offense has the advantage of knowing the snap count and getting a split-second head start – and some momentum – at the line of scrimmage. In Seattle, the defense knew exactly when the ball would be snapped.

"In both aspects – the passing game and the running game – it's definitely a tough place to play," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "But that's no excuse. We have to find a way, when we're in those situations, to have a successful day."

The 49ers' offense is far more diverse than the one-note schemes run under offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye in previous years.

With Green Bay's safeties guarding against the run, for example, Kaepernick was able to throw for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns.

The 49ers countered Seattle's tight man-to-man coverage by using Kaepernick as a runner. He finished with a team-high 87 yards and leads the team in rushing. His 107 yards are more than Gore's, Kendall Hunter's and Anthony Dixon's combined (81 yards), and he is the only quarterback in the league who leads his team in rushing.

The 49ers should have a chance to get their running backs in gear today.

Indianapolis was 29th in rushing defense last season, allowing 137.5 yards a game. Through two games this season, the Colts are 29th and have allowed 136 yards per game.

The defensive line features two former 49ers, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who signed a free-agent contract with the Colts in March. It's also led by former 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, whose 49ers defenses ranked sixth-best in the NFL in 2009 and 2010 and were especially fierce against the run.

San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said his team must do a better job of running the ball. But he also said that, unlike in previous years, they won't simply plow into the teeth of a defense because there are no other options.

"Our guys take a lot of pride in running the football, and I think it's a part and parcel with what we do," Roman said. "There is a time though where, do you really want to bang your head against a brick wall, as they say, if they just have one or two more guys than you have? So, those are the decisions you have to make."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

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Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



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