SANTA CLARA (AP) — Frank Gore zig-zags his way for important gains up the middle, or to break a big run outside on the edge.
At this stage of his career, San Francisco’s veteran running back is still among the best in the game at seeing holes in an opposing defense before they actually appear. And you can bet Gore gets a thrill out of surprising opponents who figure he might have lost a step now that he’s 30.
“I like when they think that,” Gore said with a grin. “That’s why I sneak up on a lot of guys in the open field. They think ... well, I’m not going to tell my secrets. In the open field, you see me, I can’t run you over, but sometimes I also can make you miss, too. That has helped me out a lot.”
Just like most of his teammates, Gore would like to make a statement at Seattle in Sunday’s NFC championship game as the 49ers (14-4) try to return to the Super Bowl despite lopsided losses in their last two road games against their NFC West nemesis.
Establishing the running game from the start against a talented and physical Seattle front seven will be a key factor in determining whether San Francisco takes that next step to the NFL’s big stage in the Big Apple.
Gore, the 49ers’ career rushing leader, managed only 16 yards on nine rushes in a 29-3 Week 2 loss at Seattle for his second-lowest yardage output of the year. He’ll have to do much better to help San Francisco advance to the Super Bowl.
“He works. He works at his craft, from before practice doing drills to being in meetings, going over protections, knowing where he wants to hit different holes and ultimately going out and performing,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He’s a true professional.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh calls Gore a “mystical man” for his uncanny knack at reading defenses and anticipating opponents’ tendencies.
Harbaugh remembers his first conversation with Gore, a 30-minute chat on a balcony overlooking the practice fields.
“Then it’s been daily, hourly since then,” Harbaugh said. “So, my admiration is as high as my admiration can be.”
Gore is thankful for his football instincts.
Finding openings in the defense is not something he studied. He insists he has always had the ability, perhaps more noticeable now that the 49ers are a consistent winner again.
“I just see things happen before it shows,” Gore said Wednesday. “God blessed me to find the small spots, get in the small spots, see the holes. ... Just in the flow of the game. I guess everybody’s watching us now because we’re winning. You can go back and see my film before Coach Harbaugh even came. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I still have successful seasons.”
Gore doesn’t have a snazzy nickname like Seahawks counterpart Marshawn Lynch and his “Beast Mode” moniker.
He doesn’t mind one bit.
“I don’t care, man, as long as we win and people respect my game — my peers who I play against, my coaches, my teammates — that’s all I worry about,” Gore said.
He certainly has that. Gore finished with 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns for his franchise-record seventh 1,000-yard season in a nine-year career.
And one memorable Gore run is still plenty fresh for the Seahawks.
Gore’s misdirection 51-yard burst set up a go-ahead 22-yard field goal by Phil Dawson with 26 seconds remaining in the 49ers’ 19-17 victory over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park on Dec. 8.
“Frank Gore had a great run the last time we played,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “They were running the ball OK in that game, they were competitive and all of that, and then they busted one that changed the game and gave them all of the numbers. ... He did it again the other day, he busted one again. He’s really capable, he’s a fantastic runner, he’s got great sense, and he’s got as good a sense in the line of scrimmage as anybody that’s playing in the game.”
Now, taking the next step for San Francisco means beating a smothering Seahawks defense that ranked seventh against the run during the regular season.
“Any week, you never know when you’re going to break a big one,” center Jonathan Goodwin said. “You’ve got to keep blocking. In this league you play against some good run defenses. It’s hard to break big plays.”
Running backs coach Tom Rathman has a basic philosophy at this stage of the season when the margin for success is so slim.
“We’ve got to execute, that’s the bottom line, whether we’re throwing the ball or we’re trying to run the ball,” Rathman said. “It’s pretty simple. In the games that we’re successful, we do a great job of executing our technique and executing the plays, and that’s what it’s going to take when you start talking playoff games and playing great defenses.”