49ers replay: Hunter now in the hunt at RB

The 49ers' ground game, once again, was a running joke. And with Frank Gore having difficulty cutting because of a sore ankle, and the line in front of him losing the battle of the trenches Sunday, San Francisco's struggling offense was in dire need of a spark. Hello, Kendall Hunter. "I'm out there to get something started," said the rookie RB, who now may find himself out there a lot more often.

Hunter proved to be the panacea for an offense that was making everybody ill Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium before the Niners' fourth-round draft pick replaced a hurting Gore in the huddle midway through the fourth period with San Francisco desperate to get something going.

The Cincinnati Bengals led 6-3 at the time. The way the Niners had been moving the football, a three-point lead had never looked much larger.< br>
The San Francisco offense had been on Cincinnati's side of the field exactly once the entire game. But Hunter changed that right away, taking his second carry of the game over the right side for an 11-yard burst into Bengals territory.

Four minutes later, in a game during which yards on the ground came excruciatingly for the 49ers, Hunter took a handoff left, spotted a crease and showed lightning quickness as he slashed through it.

In an instant, Hunter exploded into the end zone from seven yards out for the game's only touchdown, the go-ahead score that led San Francisco to a hard-fought 13-8 victory that left the 49ers alone in first place atop the NFC West at 2-1.

"I know that whenever they call my name, I'm going to do whatever I can to help this team out," Hunter said. "I was just ready to go whenever they called me. I was patient, and (the line) did their job and I did mine."

And now it's coach Jim Harbaugh's job to decide if the time already has come to make Hunter a major player in an offense that today is buried dead last in the NFL rankings, averaging just 213.7 yards per game.

Without question, the Niners got a huge lift from Hunter when he played in place of Gore throughout most of the fourth quarter.

Gore struggled during one of his more conspicuous off-days in recent memory, gaining just 42 yards rushing on 17 carries and losing a fumble deep in San Francisco territory with 10:39 to play, a turnover that could have been catastrophic to the 49ers in a low-scoring game had not San Francisco's rugged defense held Cincinnati to a field goal on the ensuing drive.

Gore carried just once more the rest of the game as Hunter took over and essentially carried the Niners to victory.

Harbaugh deflected any running back controversy questions by saying Gore sustained an injured ankle. But Gore never looked as if he was receiving any treatment on the sideline. Meanwhile, Hunter showed fresh legs and difference-making performance on the game's deciding drive.

"Nothing needs to change," Harbaugh vowed at the suggestion that Hunter may replace Gore. "What we need to do is get better."

Harbaugh seemed to reiterate that stance in his day-after conference call with 49ers writers from Ohio on Monday afternoon.

When NinersDigest asked Harbaugh if he might be inclined to give Hunter a larger role in the offense because of the obvious spark he provided against the Bengals, the coach didn't suggest any change is imminent in the way he plans to use the two backs.

"I think Kendall's a good player, but Frank's status in my mind hasn't changed," Harbaugh said. "Frank is good to go. We'll plan, we'll scheme and prepare for this game with Frank along with everyone else. There's no bold statement on how much we're going to use Kendall or anybody else."

But Hunter definitely has caught Harbaugh's attention. Along with everybody else's.

Hunter finished with only 26 yards rushing on nine carries against the Bengals, which means he didn't even average three yards a pop. But it seemed like 200 yards compared to Gore's plodding production.

Hunter's numbers were a bit skewed as the Niners conservatively attempted to run out the clock with a lead in the final minutes. Hunter plowed into the line with both his hands protecting the football on five of San Francisco's final six offensive plays in the final four minutes, gaining two net yards on those five carries to deflate his final average.

What Hunter might be proving is that the 49ers must modernize when it comes to their running game, and they can start by using Hunter and getting away from Gore as the workhorse.

Most teams use two backs far more than the 49ers, and Hunter – who was the NFL's preseason rushing champion – provides a dimension that could enliven a dormant San Francisco attack.

Gore is likely to keep his starting job, wobbly ankle and all. But Hunter at least is edging his way into getting more snaps.

A two-back system worked fairly well for the New York Giants during their victory Sunday over the reeling Philadelphia Eagles, who host the Niners this coming Sunday. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 22 carries for 105 yards rushing as the Giants ruined Philadelphia's home opener with a 29-16 victory that dropped the Eagles to 1-2.

The 49ers should keep that in mind this week as they prepare in Youngstown, Ohio, to face the banged-up Eagles, who rank 30th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 131.3 yards a game and a fat 4.9-yard average per carry on the ground.

Hunter has likely carved a larger role for himself in the offense, but he's not the only player likely to see increased playing time on that struggling unit.

The 49ers got a woeful performance from their offensive line against the Bengals, and conspicuous amongst the ruins was the play of faltering right guard Chilo Rachal, who was replaced by Adam Snyder in the second half.

Rachal played horribly in the first half, when he was slapped with two holding calls (one was declined) and a false start. He also gave up a sack and got pushed backward on a run to Gore that resulted in a three-yard loss.

Snyder rotated with Rachal after halftime, and the 49ers may consider a more permanent role for Snyder to provide a level of consistency they aren't getting from Rachal at the position.

One thing the 49ers don't have to be concerned about is Hunter being prepared for what comes next. The rookie is not about to rest on the first impact performance of his NFL career.

"We've still got a lot of stuff to work on," Hunter said. "The defense is playing great, and they helped us out a lot. But as an offensive unit, all of us have got to get better, because it's only going to get harder and harder from here on out."

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