As Frank Gore goes, so go Niners on offense
It's no secret that when Gore goes, so goes the San Francisco offense. That has never been more evident than during the past two weeks, when Gore ran like a reborn running back and the 49ers suddenly looked born again on their previously slumbering offense.
And it's no secret Gore gets it going against the Lions like no other team.
Gore has a history of success against Detroit, producing 487 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in three career games against the Lions, all San Francisco victories. Gore's 120 yards rushing per game against Detroit leads all active NFL players in average rushing yards against a specific opponent.
"Hopefully that can continue this week," Gore told NinersDigest on Friday before the 49ers packed up at their Santa Clara headquarters and left for Detroit. "They have a good defense and they look real good on film with their front four. Ndamukong Suh, he's a beast, man. I'm going to go out there and play hard. It's going to be a good game Sunday."
The 49ers will be focused on getting Gore and their offense going early against the explosive Lions. That's a formula that sure worked well the past two weeks, when the Niners took significant steps toward contending status after missing the playoffs each of the past eight seasons.
Gore rushed for 127 yards to spark the Niners to a 24-23 road upset of the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 2, then rumbled for 125 yards on the ground as the 49ers overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-3 at home last week to build their first three-game winning streak since 2006.
Gore's back-to-back 100-yard rushing games – giving him a team-record 26 for his career – elevated the seventh-year veteran to ninth among the NFL's leading rushers this week with 400 yards and raised his per-carry average from 2.5 at the end of September to 4.3.
But even more importantly, Gore's recent breakout has lifted the entire San Francisco offense, which ranked 32nd in the league through September but has erupted for 442 yards and 418 yards the past two weeks.
"Everything has to be clicking," Gore said. "When the passing game is going great, the running game comes. When the running game comes faster first, then the passing game comes. It's all equal, you know? It's balance. Like I say, once the passing game is going, the running game will come. And that will be big."
The Niners figure to need another big offensive effort this week against the streaking Lions, who average 379.6 yards per game and rank fourth in the NFL with 31.8 points per game.
San Francisco must try to keep up and get ahead against a Detroit defense that ranks 12th in the NFL but might be vulnerable against the run, where the Lions rank 18th in the league, allowing 114.8 yards on the ground per game.
"They do a very good job with their eight-man fronts stopping the run," Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "That's really what they're coached to do from day one. They've got it rolling and they're good.
"Their defensive front four is extremely talented. They rely on them a lot in the pass rush and to disrupt the running game, create penetration. They'll walk (Suh) around some as well and run some games with him. But how do you stop him? You have to mix it up a little bit and keep them honest."
It has been nearly a decade since the 49ers have played in an October game of this magnitude, but Harbaugh and his team have treated this week like the five others this season that have gotten them to this point.
That's part of the reason the 49ers are 4-1 and have a two-game lead in the NFC West as the travel to play the undefeated Lions, who share the NFL's best record at 5-0 with defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.
If the season were to end today, the 49ers and Lions would be the top two seeds in the NFC playoffs. The two teams were a combined 1-9 at this point in October last season.
But Harbaugh says the Niners can't get ahead of themselves as they put their undefeated road record on the line against a team San Francisco has beaten seven consecutive times and in 12 of their last 13 meetings.
"We want to play in big games," Harbaugh said. "This is an opportunity, no question about it. It's where we want to be. But this is game six for us. Every single week, we go into these games with one intent and that's to do everything we can to prepare ourselves to win. That's all that's ever on our mind."
Harbaugh's disciplined, detail-oriented approach has gotten the 49ers off to their best start since 2002.
The 49ers haven't started 5-1 since 1998. To get there this year, they must get past one of the NFL's hottest teams. The Lions have won a league-best nine consecutive games dating back to last season.
The upstart Niners are on quite a roll themselves. But playing the hungry Lions before a raucous Ford Field crowd could give the 49ers their best gauge yet of where they really stand among the NFL's best teams.
"Every time you step on the field, you find out where you're at," Gore said. "But everybody's really paying attention to us two teams who are starting to get on top going against each other. We're doing great, they're doing great. I know a lot of people want to see what happens."
The 49ers are eager to see what happens, too. They have sustained their momentum throughout the week in practice and hit the road Friday with confidence it will continue.
"Locked, loaded, ready to leave fully loaded for Detroit," Harbaugh said. "I feel like our team is up for the challenge, ready to go. Guys are focused, they understand what's at stake. I thought we had our best Wednesday practice of the season. Guys are fronting it up, they're banging, they're where they're supposed to be, they're fitting it correctly, bringing energy, and they have focus, a purpose."
And now, they have another chance to take the next step.
"We're going to have to play our best," Harbaugh said. "The better you play, the more opportunities you have like this."
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