The San Francisco 49ers have been attempting to remix their offense all season through a 5-2 start, but as they continue to work out the kinks in the passing game, they are best served going back to Plan A.
That would be giving running back Frank Gore the ball often. He got twice as many carries (16) in Thursday's 13-6 home win over the Seattle Seahawks than he did in Sunday's home loss to the New York Giants (8). The result was rushing for nearly a 100 more yards (131 in contrast to 36).
The Seahawks came into the game as the NFL's No. 2 run defense. That will change after Gore and backup Kendall Hunter were the chief contributors to a 175-yard effort.
The production was all the more impressive considering top tight end Vernon Davis (no catches) and the Niners' wide receivers evaporated from the game plan for the second consecutive week. That group was further hampered by the fact that the Niners' best pass-catcher against the Giants, former Giant Mario Manningham, missed Week 7 with a shoulder injury.
Given how big, fast and physical the Seahawks' secondary is, the receivers' struggles to get open was not surprising, and neither was quarterback Alex Smith needing to rely on shorter, safer passes to move the ball. Most of those went to Gore, too (5 catches, 51 yards), and the game's only TD came from Smith to fullback/tight end hybrid Delanie Walker on a run after the catch.
With Davis, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss on the field, you would think the Niners could get someone consistently open downfield even against the toughest defensive back coverage.
But once teams can take away Davis, Smith isn't quite in sync with Crabtree. Other than a few flashes this season, he's even less in sync with Moss. Some good evidence of that came on Smith's early fourth-quarter end zone interception. A wide-open Moss was streaking laterally at the back of the end zone, but Smith's timing was well off (late) in trying to get the ball to him.
Smith needs more time with Moss on the field to develop that chemistry, and the shared snaps aren't there yet. It didn't help that Smith's rhythm was thrown off a by inserting backup Colin Kaepernick for an unsuccessful read option run on the previous play.
We keep getting mixed signals from the Niners about just how much they trust Smith to operate a passing game like one of the elite NFC quarterbacks. Part of the team’s problem is in not knowing how to best use all their receivers to help him, especially newcomers Moss and Manningham.
They still seem most comfortable and most complementary to their stingy 3-4 defense when Gore handles the ball 20-plus times, with the dynamic Hunter having about half that workload.
Gore is the type of back who gets stronger the more carries he gets. When facing a strong front seven such as Seattle's, he can eventually dole out more punishment that he takes. Hunter is an ideal relief man, because he combines the no-nonsense style with younger, fresher legs to feed on the defense Gore has worked to wear down.
The added arsenal around Smith will come in handy down the line. We already saw Moss make a difference in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers, and he made a little something happen late against the Giants.
The Niners should know by now, however, in an NFC West full of gritty defensive-minded, run-heavy teams, they still play the best brand of that football, enough to pull away in the division again.
It sounds strange to say in an election year, but staying conservative with a lot more of Gore can help San Francisco easily win the division race. They will eventually need their Plan B with the passing game to have more than moderate success to meet the goal of the Super Bowl, but in the meantime, it's nice to fall back on one of the league's best feature backs.
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