Previewing The 49ers Running Backs

I’m not going to harp on it too much, but it goes without saying that you can’t mention the 49ers running game without mentioning Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick may be the quarterback by name, but he’s certainly capable of being a running back by trade. Just go find Dom Capers in the unemployment line and ask him. But to clear something up, Kaepernick isn’t a one read and run quarterback. In fact, that Green Bay demolition is the only time this season where he ran more than 10 times in a game (RG3 had 10+ carries in five games this season). Usually he’ll take off 6 or 7 times and otherwise opt to stay in the pocket or hand it off to the guy I should be talking about.

And really, it is just one guy. After Kendall Hunter went down in Week 12 against New Orleans, San Francisco went back to their tried and true strategy: feed Frank Gore until the wheels fall off, which should have happened years ago. Seriously, just read this piece in the New York Times. “His original ligament structure had not been strong enough for his knees” is not something that should ever be said about a successful running back. But none of that matters now, and at 29 years old, Gore just keeps showing up (Gore, Ray Rice, and Chris Johnson are the only three backs to appear in all 16 games the last two years) and producing (his 1,214 yards this season were the second most he’s gained during his career).

At this stage of his career, all of the bells and whistles are gone from Gore’s game. He’s not the pass catcher he was earlier in his early years (he averaged 51 receptions from 2006-2010. This year he had 28). And at 29, he’s not a threat to bust a big touchdown run out (his 3 TD’s in the playoffs have come from 5, 2, and 9 yards out respectively). No, for the most part Gore does something that’s completely foreign to the state of Maryland: he plows. Just finds a hole in the line and pushes ahead until people stop pushing back. He’s still got a few moves in the open field that would make Shakira proud, but his element is short yardage situations where he’s just relentless.

To stop Gore, the Ravens are just going to have to match that relentlessness. Some RB’s like Chris Johnson can be frustrated early in the game and then lose their confidence later on. Gore is not a member of that group (in the 4th quarter he averages 5.6 ypc, his best average of any quarter). He makes his hay by steadily chipping away at a defense, and then breaking three or four above average runs every game. Gore is not a toss sweep type of back either, so stopping him is going to rely disproportionately on the middle of the line getting push against the 49ers guards and center.

The direct opposite of Gore would be back up RB LaMichael James. James is best known for his days at Oregon where he could pick up 200 yards in the blink of an eye. Although he only has 8 carries this postseason, they’ve amounted to 55 yards, an average of almost 7 yards per carry. Even though he’s lightly used, James can’t be taken lightly because of his freakish agility in space. Any time he’s got room to work with he’s a potential home run hitter, and it would just take a missed tackle or two to spring him loose down the sideline.

The key with James has to be to rough him up. Although he and Gore are the same height, James is 22 pounds lighter, and is susceptible to getting beat up over the course of a game. Obviously sound tackling is the key to making sure he doesn’t break loose, but if someone were to lay some wood on James early it could change his whole mental makeup for this game.