Two areas in which the San Francisco 49ers excelled this season were run defense and rushing. In part three of our season review, we'll take a look at the running backs.
It's unfortunate that Frank Gore sustained a broken right hip in Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals. He was on his way to a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season and had clearly become the 49ers' MVP of 2010.
In some ways, Gore was a victim of former coach Mike Singletary's insistence on force-feeding opponents the running game. Teams loaded up on the run, and the Niners' offense was often predictable early in games: run, run, pass, punt.
Gore endured and still finished with 853 rushing yards, eighth best in the NFC, despite missing the last five games of the season. He also ranked eighth in the conference in total yards from scrimmage (1,305).
It's worth wondering, however, how much better the 49ers run game would have been had Singletary made use of Brian Westbrook, who was signed before the start of the season and is arguably one of the best third-down backs in NFL history. Singletary continually insisted that Westbrook was still learning the offense and that Gore did not like coming out of games, but those are insufficient reasons for not making use of a talented runner like Westbrook.
Westbrook touched the ball just 10 times in the first 10 games (five rushing attempts, five receptions). After Gore went down against the Cardinals, he ran for 136 yards in relief; two weeks later, he caught six passes for 87 yards and one touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks.
Rookie Anthony Dixon was used sparingly but still finished with 237 yards on 70 carries and was 4-for-4 on third-and-one attempts. He could be a valuable weapon in coach Jim Harbaugh's power-based West Coast offense, although he'll have to improve his pass-catching skills.
Gore is hopeful he can take part in offseason workouts as soon as there's a new collective bargaining agreement, and the 49ers will be anxious to see how he recovers from his injury. He'll be 28 in May, so if the team senses he's lost anything, they'll look to Dixon or the draft to shore up their backfield. Westbrook would be a perfect fit in Harbaugh's offense, but his experience this season will probably make him look elsewhere for a job.