Three weeks into this season, Frank Gore’s numbers weren’t pretty.
Three games, 59 carries, 148 total yards rushing and a 2.5 yards-per-carry average are statistics that will get a running back noticed – in a bad way.
Gore, in his seventh NFL season, didn’t seem anything like the back he’d been his first six years in a 49ers uniform, when he’d had four 1,000-yard seasons and been the focus of the team’s rushing attack.
He’d always been quick, strong and versatile, as good out of the backfield as a receiver as he was carrying the ball.
But after the team’s victory over Cincinnati in Week 3 – when rookie Kendall Hunter came off the bench to rush for a key score – some were starting to wonder if Gore, 28, wasn’t the same back he’d been before.
Perhaps an ankle injury and six seasons of NFL abuse were taking their toll.
Two weeks later, however, that tune has changed.
The Gore of today is the Gore of yore.
In Sunday’s 48-3 win over Tampa Bay, Gore averaged 6.3 yards per carry in rushing for 125 yards. The previous week, he averaged 8.5 yards per rush in getting 127 yards against the Eagles.
“He has his burst back,” head coach Jim Harbaugh told the San Jose Mercury News after Sunday’s game. “He looked like Frank. He’s having fun out there. That’s the thing I see in Frank – that he’s enjoying football.”
These days, too, with Alex Smith playing well at quarterback, opposing defenses can’t do what they used to do against the 49ers: load up in the box to stop the run and dare Smith to beat them.
In 2011, Smith is proving he can, and that’s giving the division-leading 49ers (4-1) a balance they haven’t had in recent seasons.
“Alex Smith is playing great ball and they don’t know what to defend,” Gore told the Tampa Tribune. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that we are looking this good.”
Bucs running back Earnest Graham said the 49ers Sunday “had a game plan they played to perfection.”
“They played physical, they ran the ball like they wanted and they stopped us,” he said.
It was the first time in five seasons the 49ers have rushed for more than 200 yards in a game, while also allowing no sacks, a tribute to the offensive line.
Offensive tackle Joe Staley says Gore, in having his 26th career 100-yard rushing day, is still at the top of his game.
“It’s amazing how he hits the holes,” Staley told the Mercury News. “There were a couple of times where I thought he was stopped and got nothing. But then he managed to break them for 8 or 10 yards.”