James Laurinaitis has watched 49ers running back Frank Gore perform the most mind-boggling trick for the past five years: Make his 215-pound frame disappear through the tiniest openings.
“Heck, a lot of times on the power plays, it looks like there’s no room in there,” said Laurinaitis, the St. Louis Rams’ middle linebacker. “But he’s patient, gets low and kind of squeaks through these little holes.”
Gore’s magic has involved an assistant in recent years. Most of his longest runs this season have been led by fullback Bruce Miller, who has played more snaps – 152, according to statistics service Pro Football Focus – and whose playing time this year appears to be tied to the 49ers’ success.
Miller was in on 36 percent of the team’s offensive snaps against Chicago in Week 2 and just 14 percent of the plays against Arizona a week later. He spent more time on the sideline in those two games than any other this season, and both ended in losses.
He and Gore have been together since 2011, Miller’s rookie season, and the duo have honed their act to the point that Gore heads into today’s game against the Rams as the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher with 100-yard plus rushing performances in his past two games.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said on one of Gore’s longer runs in last week’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs, he watched Miller make a block downfield and then saw Gore slip through the small gap between Miller and the defender he had just blocked – evidence, Harbaugh said, of the tailback and fullback being in harmony.
“It was really something to be seen,” Harbaugh said. “Almost like those car racers, when they drive through the smoke of an accident. (Gore) just went right through it. He didn’t get touched. He was missed by the narrowest of margins. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a runner run between a blocker and a defender until now.”
Early in Gore’s career, his lead blocker was Moran Norris, a broad-shouldered, 250-pound battering ram who was excellent at the point of attack and helped spring Gore for 1,695 yards in 2006, his best season.
Two years later, then offensive coordinator Mike Martz replaced Norris with a smaller fullback, Zak Keasey, whom Martz thought was more dynamic and could get downfield faster to make blocks beyond the line of scrimmage.
Miller is a cross between the two, and he’s been particularly effective this season at creating room for rushers along the sideline.
The common element between Miller and Gore, running backs coach Tom Rathman said, is attention to detail. Their chemistry isn’t a natural phenomenon but the result of long hours together in the film room.
“Both of them are very detail-oriented, and I think they’re both very intelligent football players,” Rathman said. “They understand things, and they picked it up relatively quick, just the scheme in general. Kudos to those players that can do that.”
Last year, Gore had his best game in St. Louis, a 153-yard effort that included a 34-yard touchdown run. Laurinaitis said the formula for stopping him this year isn’t complicated: If you can locate Miller, Gore won’t be far behind.
“Bruce takes you to the ball, and when he gets to the point of attack, he’s a good football player,” the linebacker said. “I think he springs Frank on a lot of runs as well.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.