SANTA CLARA (AP) — Wearing a gray San Francisco 49ers hoodie, soft-spoken running back Frank Gore walked around team headquarters with a familiar smile and strut Thursday.
Gore is in good spirits again, and so are the 49ers (2-2) entering Sunday night’s game against the Houston Texans (2-2) at Candlestick Park. Gore gashed St. Louis for 153 yards on 20 carries in San Francisco’s 35-11 rout of the Rams last week to snap a two-game losing skid and a rare running funk.
“We got back to being us,” Gore said.
While much of the attention had been on quarterback Colin Kaepernick this season, San Francisco struggled to get the ground game going behind Gore.
Gore ran for just 144 yards the first three weeks combined, his worst start to a season since becoming the team’s featured back in 2006. Questions started to bubble up about whether the 30-year-old running back, who has had surgeries on both knees going back to his college days at Miami, was wearing down.
Instead, San Francisco gave Gore as many carries against St. Louis as he had the previous two weeks. All he did was run for more yards than he had since Dec. 14, 2009, when he racked up 167 against Arizona on Monday Night Football.
“We know he’s capable of that, he knows he’s capable of that and our offensive line knows he’s capable of that,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “No question that everybody’s inspired by what he does. Nobody does it like Frank Gore.”
Perhaps no player has contributed to San Francisco’s success more than Gore the past three seasons.
With Gore anchoring a power running game, the 49ers have been among the NFL’s top rushing teams since Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman revamped the unit after taking control in 2011. During Harbaugh’s tenure, San Francisco is 9-0 when Gore runs for at least 100 yards.
Gore was fifth in the NFC with 1,214 yards rushing and his 4.7-yard average ranked sixth in the NFL last season to help carry San Francisco to the Super Bowl, where the 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Gore also was the league leader in rushing (319 yards) and rushing touchdowns (4) in the postseason.
This year had been a different story until last week.
San Francisco still ranks ninth in yards rushing (524) mainly because of the 140 yards Kaepernick has gained on scrambles. But the running game has shown little depth so far.
Backup Kendall Hunter, coming back from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his season last year, has just 80 yards rushing through four games. And LaMichael James, who missed time with a knee injury, had three carries for no yards against St. Louis.
“The more we stay on the field, the more we can utilize those weapons,” Roman said about Hunter and James. “So it’s definitely a function of how many plays you’re running, how many opportunities you have during a game and try to forecast that when you’re putting a plan together.”
Gore has made it clear he wants more running plays. He suggested that the 49ers had become too reliant on passing after a home loss to Indianapolis in Week 3, when he was held to 12 yards on three carries in the second half.
The team’s longtime workhorse in the backfield said getting “back to basics” against St. Louis showed that the power running game, while not as flashy, is still San Francisco’s winning formula.
“Just call plays and let us go out there man on man and let the best man win,” Gore said.
That challenge is not getting any easier this week.
Houston is anchored by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. The Texans are 10th against the run, allowing 113.2 yards per game, with Watt moving all over to keep linemen guessing.
“Other than the Super Bowl,” 49ers guard Alex Boone said, “I’d say this is a (tougher) test.”
NOTES: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said the chances All-Pro LB Patrick Willis plays against Houston “are better than 50-50.” Willis sat out at St. Louis with a strained groin. He warmed up on the field where rehabbing players work out during the portion of practice open to reporters. ... Fangio said he disagreed with the $21,000 fine the NFL levied against safety Donte Whitner for his shoulder-to-helmet hit on Rams wide receiver Chris Givens. He also said the league instructs officials to err on the side of caution, which puts the defense at a disadvantage. “They need to err on the correct side, not on the safe side,” Fangio said. “Because if it is an illegal hit, the guy will get fined on Monday or Tuesday. If you miss it as an official, that doesn’t mean that it’s over and done with.” Whitner, who said he’s legally changing his last name to Hitner, is appealing the fine.