SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Say goodbye to the Frank Gore Era 2010. Say hello to Thunder and Lightning.
That's how San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary describes the styles of veteran Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon, who will share the running back duties now that Gore is out for the season with a fractured right hip.
The nickname fits. Westbrook is an instinctual runner with quick moves and an ability to find an open hole (lightning); Dixon is big, powerful and effervescent (thunder).
"That (phrase) has been used a lot through the years with running backs," Singletary said Wednesday. "With those guys, it's literally applicable."
Together, Westbrook and Dixon will be asked to minimize the loss of Gore, who totaled 1,305 yards from scrimmage this season and had almost 37 percent of the team's offensive touches. They'll get their chance Sunday on the road against the Green Bay Packers.
It won't be easy. Singletary called Gore the heart and soul of the team. His teammates speak admiringly of him. But Westbrook and Dixon are likely to show opponents a change of pace that could work to the 49ers' favor.
Here's how Westbrook describes Dixon: "I would say I'm on one end of the spectrum and he's on the other. He's young, he's excited, he's full of … something. He's a very good player, though."
In some ways, Gore and Westbrook have been mentors to Dixon, a sixth-round draft pick from Mississippi State who has played primarily special teams but has also scored two touchdowns rushing.
His coltish nature has been something the Niners have tried to corral since training camp. He's excitable, and he often likes to use his quick feet to create openings when the coaching staff wants him to run straight ahead.
"He's got great feet," Singletary said. "He likes to try to feel the hole, but we want him to be more disciplined toward hitting it and hitting it now -- and if it's not there, make it there. He's still learning what his style is going to be."
Westbrook gained 136 yards after relieving Gore in what was his first extended opportunity to play. He had only 10 touches in the team's first 10 games.
"I'm a little bit sore," he said, "but my body will get used to it."
Singletary said the 49ers will use caution with Westbrook because of his injury history, which includes two concussions with the Philadelphia Eagles last season that limited him to eight games. But Westbrook said he prefers not to think about what has happened in the past.
"I don't go into football games worrying about injuries," he said. "I go out there and play with everything I have. Injuries have been a part of this game way before I started playing, so I just go out there and play."
Although Singletary said he's unsure how much either back will be used, Dixon said he's ready to make a sustained contribution now that Gore is gone. All he has to do is keep his emotions in check.
"Coach tells me to tone it a little bit," Dixon said. "I get so excited. I want to do so good and show a lot of doubters that I have that I've gotten better as a football player. So I just get kind of excited. But I'm getting better with that."