Gore finding huge holes behind Iupati and Co.
Frank Gore looks at his three 100-yard rushing performances, four touchdowns and overall stellar output in the season's first half and is quick to praise an unheralded offensive line that plays such an integral part in helping him do it.
Helping San Francisco's entire offense shine, too. These big boys block all over the field, every which way – even if it means taking on a speedy, more athletic defensive back.
''It's fun because they look at you like you're not supposed to be down there,'' right tackle Anthony Davis said this week. ''We're a lot bigger than them.''
Gore appreciates every athletic block, every hustle play.
The three-time Pro Bowl running back insists he has never had such huge holes ahead of him to run, and that is the ultimate compliment to the 49ers' talented, much-improved O-line.
Gore is now gearing up for a strong stretch the rest of the way with the NFC West-leading Niners (6-2), as long as these guys keep doing the dirty work ahead of him to keep things clicking toward another playoff berth.
Gore has run for 656 yards on 119 carries, averaging a career-best 5.5 yards – topping his 5.4 average in 2006.
''My O-linemen are doing a (heckuva) job of springing me and giving me big lanes that I've never seen before,'' Gore said. ''So I have to give it to them, and to the receivers blocking down field.''
While Gore has only played alongside two Pro Bowl linemen during his eight NFL seasons with San Francisco – Larry Allen in 2006 and left tackle Joe Staley last season – recognition hardly means much to this tight-knit unit that truly enjoys going to work together each day during the grind of a 16-game season.
But the unit is gaining a reputation for the physical nature of its play.
“We’re big guys leaning on you all game,” Davis said. “We just do our job, and it wears you out. It’s just natural it happens like that. It’s just one will against another, and some guys are tougher than other guys.”
Davis and Iupati have started every game for the 49ers since they were drafted, becoming in 2010 just the third pair of rookie offensive linemen to start every game since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Since then, they have set the tone of physicality for San Francisco’s line.
A bruiser at left guard, Iupati has gained a reputation as one of the top run-blocking guards in the league.
One of San Francisco’s signature offensive plays is called “power,” a running play during which Iupati pulls to the right and either trap blocks or leads through a hole.
Iupati has been running that play since his college days, and nobody was able to stop it then, either.
“That’s my game,” Iupati said. “I love power. Power is one physical play. It’s just one of those plays that’s smashmouth football. It’s fun, man. That’s one of my best plays, and I’ve always loved pulling and trapping. With the line blocking, Frank can read those holes easily, and Frank’s one of the best running backs out there playing the game.”
Gore has had a lot of success on that play, and he’s enjoying one of his finest seasons despite carrying the ball fewer times than at this point in previous years.
Early last year, the line faced criticism for a slow start, then took more heat after quarterback Alex Smith was sacked nine times in a Thanksgiving night loss at Baltimore. Staley, Jonathan Goodwin and Co. have done their best to ignore – and sometimes even call out – the skeptics and move forward by sticking together to stay the course.
''There's a lot of talent in that room, on that line. The one thing I'll say about this line is it's a hard-working line, it's a line that's not satisfied with a little success,'' Goodwin said. ''I think everybody wants big success for themselves and this team.''
And the Niners are getting more of a push from opposing defenses within the division this season, as every team has either upgraded or just plain improved on that side of the ball.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher realizes what a load his defense faces on Sunday in stopping Gore, slowing down Smith and his large cast of receivers – and doing all that against a physical, do-everything offensive line.
''I can't remember having to prepare for an offense that was so well-coached and so diversified in the run game and so talented, the different types of run concepts,'' Fisher said.
Smith connected with nine different wideouts in a 24-3 road rout of the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football on Oct. 29, and like Gore the quarterback gives much of the credit to the line.
Smith was also sacked four times that night and has been taken down 22 times this season for 128 lost yards – yet the 2005 No. 1 overall pick recently said he takes the blame and would rather be sacked than risk throwing an interception.
''They have a lot on their plate, week in and week out,'' Smith said. ''We ask them to do a lot, run and pass. Really, our balance starts with them, the ability in the run game and then protect in the pass game. They continue to execute, not just physically but mentally.''
That's just part of the job, Iupati said.
''We're all on the same page. We want to win. That's the key to it,'' Iupati said. ''Just sticking together, camaraderie. We have each other's back, and also the communication factor.''
Whatever makes them work, other teams are taking notice. There's so much to deal with on San Francisco's offense.
''They have a lot invested in the O-line and do a very good job. It just makes that play action a nightmare when you try to stop the run,'' St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis said. ''And when you have an O-line like that, they have some weird running plays. They'll run some running plays I don't think I've seen since the Tecmo Super Bowl, playing that video game.''