49ers, Gore trying to build running game back up

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.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org