SANTA CLARA (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers are benefiting from the stellar start of running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
The 49ers lead the NFC in rushing and rank second in the NFL after the Gore-Hunter tandem combined for 153 yards during last week’s victory at Green Bay.
The Niners look to keep it rolling Sunday night in their home opener against the Lions, who have struggled to contain Gore and San Francisco’s rushing game.
Gore is averaging 125.3 yards rushing in four career games against the Lions, the most of any NFL back since Gore entered the league in 2005.
The 49ers won each of those four games and have an eight-game winning streak against the Lions dating back to 1996.
“They’ve got great guys over there and their front seven plays well together, but our (offensive) line does a great job making the holes, and I just run the ball,” Gore said.
Gore broke away for runs of 55 and 47 yards on his way to a season-high 141 yards rushing when the 49ers snapped Detroit’s unbeaten start last year in Week 6 with a 25-19 victory at Ford Field. San Francisco rushed for 203 yards in that game, with Hunter adding 33.
Hunter’s workload will increase this season as the 49ers look to keep Gore, the franchise’s career leading rusher, fresh deep into the season.
After compiling a franchise-best string of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games last season, Gore wore down during the second half of the season, when he failed to break the 100-yard barrier in any of San Francisco’s final eight games.
The duo complemented each other well in the season opener at Green Bay, when Gore rushed for 112 yards and Hunter had 41. The two backs combined to average 6.1 yards per carry as San Francisco’s offense moved the ball effectively throughout the 30-22 win.
“I think they’re great for each other,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Both are tremendous backs, and Kendall has really raised his game. Frank is one of the best there is and he’s made Kendall better. Kendall brings to the table that kind of spirit, youth and desire to get better all the time. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that Frank has benefited from that as well.”
The 49ers finished eighth in the NFL in rushing offense last season, but the team still looked to upgrade when it signed free-agent running back Brandon Jacobs during the offseason and used its second-round draft pick to select LaMichael James.
Gore and Hunter, however, were the only San Francisco running backs to get carries against the Packers. That followed the plan of last season, when Gore and Hunter combined for 394 carries and 1,684 rushing yards.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s me or Kendall,” Gore said. “We’re pretty far ahead of where we were last year, and he helps me a lot. He has a different style, a change of pace, and it’s been great for us. We’re always ready to go out there.”
Jacobs, expected to be in the mix this season for regular carries as a short-yardage back, injured his left knee in San Francisco’s Aug. 18 preseason game at Houston and hasn’t practiced since. Jacobs is listed as questionable against the Lions, and Harbaugh said Friday the veteran’s return to action is getting closer.
With Jacobs out this summer, Hunter solidified his status as Gore’s primary backup with an excellent training camp and preseason, when Hunter averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Hunter and Gore have developed a bond both on and off the field.
“Frank’s like a big brother to me,” Hunter said. “Just being able to work with someone like that, a future Hall of Famer, has been great for me to learn things. We push each other and help each other out with different things we see to make the team better. He just keeps pushing me to get better, and I try to do the same for him.”