Gore, 49ers focused on strong finish

Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers are hoping for a strong

finish to the regular season, beginning with Monday night’s game

against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 49ers have lost two of three since a 9-1 start, and Gore has

gone five consecutive games with 88 yards rushing or fewer after

stringing together a franchise-record five straight games of 100

yards or more on the ground.

But Gore and his team see Monday’s game as a platform to regain

momentum and resume the resurgence that has pushed the 49ers into

the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

”It’s a blessing the situation I’m in and the team’s in, and

everybody wants to win these last three games,” Gore said

Saturday. ”We know that Pittsburgh’s a good team that’s been

playing together a while and is coming in here with a great

defense. We just have to go out there Monday night against a tough

defense and play 49ers ball, the kind of ball that got us here and

this far.”

Gore has played a key role in San Francisco’s first winning

season and NFC West championship since 2002. He ranks fourth in the

NFL with 1,054 yards rushing, recording his team-record fifth

1,000-yard season in six years while becoming the franchise’s

career leading career rusher two weeks ago.

But opponents have been stacking the line of scrimmage more to

stop him, an approach that has become more effective since

mid-November. That has caused problems for a struggling San

Francisco offense that has been held below 234 yards twice in the

past three games.

Next up is Pittsburgh, which features the same 3-4 defensive

scheme that gave the 49ers fits in recent losses to Baltimore and

Arizona. The Steelers rank second in the NFL in total defense and

sixth in rushing defense, and they’re likely to follow the

blueprint for stopping San Francisco’s offense established recently

by the Ravens and Cardinals.

”Frank can be productive against anybody,” 49ers offensive

coordinator Greg Roman said. ”I think we’ve seen that. But the

running game is a fixture of 11 people doing their job. All 11

people have to do their job to be successful.”

Gore has been hampered by ankle and knee injuries, and the 49ers

have had to consider balancing his playing time with keeping their

workhorse fresh.

Gore’s 37-yard touchdown run last week gave San Francisco a 19-7

lead early in the third quarter. But Gore carried the ball just

twice more the rest of the game and San Francisco managed just 41

yards of offense over the final 27 minutes while Arizona rallied to

end the 49ers’ five-game winning streak between the two NFC West

rivals.

The 49ers settled for field goals in all three of their red zone

opportunities and were just 3 of 17 on third-down conversion

attempts, continuing their season-long problems in both areas.

”There’s certain situations where we have to get better, and

we’re going to get there,” Gore said. ”We just have to start

scoring more points when we have the opportunity. We’ve had a good

week of practice and feel good. We’re going to go out there and

enjoy this game.”

The 49ers might be without Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis

for the second consecutive week. Willis missed practice again

Saturday and is listed as questionable to play against the

Steelers.

Left tackle Joe Staley, who suffered a concussion last week,

returned to practice in a limited fashion after sitting out

Thursday and Friday. He’s also listed as questionable.

Coach Jim Harbaugh has been pleased this week with how his team

reacted to a recent stretch of adversity that included injuries and

offensive ineptitude. He’s eager to see how the 49ers respond

Monday.

”I feel good about where we are right now,” Harbaugh said

Saturday. ”This is what we prepare for. Look forward to going out

there and putting it on the line. That’s what these guys do: They

go put it on the line. That’s the pressure. That’s the excitement

of it.”