Giants will see a different kind of Gore
It won't quite be a clash of running-game philosophies in the two conference championship battles this weekend.
But it is interesting to note that the contests feature matchups between teams that rely on a feature-type tailback to do most of the heavy lifting in the running game versus franchises that generally employ a tailback-by-committee design to churn out yards on the ground.
In Frank Gore, the 49ers possess a tailback who has accounted for more than two-thirds of the San Francisco's attempts and rushing yards by running backs (not counting rushes by quarterbacks and players from other positions).
The Giants will counter with the potent 1-2 punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, neither of whom cracked the 700-yard mark in 2011, but who are better than advertised and whose diverse styles present a compelling contrast.
To be sure, the Giants figure to see a different kind of Gore this time around than the one they limited to zero yards on six carries in the Niners' 27-20 win over New York on November 13.
In the AFC game, New England has three backs who ran for more than 350 yards each during the regular season, with only BenJarvus Green-Ellis managing more than 500 yards, while the Baltimore Ravens try to control tempo with Ray Rice, whose 291 attempts ranked as the second most in the NFL (as did his 367 "touches'), and who rang up nearly 75 percent of the team's running yards by backs.
"It's all in what you and your team are comfortable with," said Rice, who ran for 1,364 yards and a dozen touchdowns during the season, but like most running backs was shut down by San Francisco's defense when the Niners held him to 59 yards on 21 carries without a score during Baltimore's 16-6 win on Thanksgiving evening.
"I really don't mind getting 20 or 25 carries, if that's what it takes for us to win, although Ricky (Williams) has done a great job taking his share of the load," Rice said. "Getting the ball that many times is no big deal to me. But I can see the other side of it, too. You know, whatever works for the team."
Gore has remained out of the limelight this week and has shied away from interviews while most of his 49ers teammates were busy doing them. He was never scheduled for a group podium interview during the week, a bit unusual considering Gore is player San Francisco's offense is build around.
But Gore likes to let his work on the field do the talking. He has had to listen to a lot of skeptics talk about how he has slowed down and his production has dropped over the final two months of the season.
Gore had a team-record five consecutive 100-yard games entering the Nov. 13 meeting between the 49ers and Giants, but he entered that game hurting after injuring his ankle the week before while rushing for 107 yards on 19 carries.
With the Giants committed to stopping him by bringing extra safeties into the box, Gore was blanked before San Francisco coaches finally decided to sit him for all but a few plays in the second half.
It was the only time in Gore's career that he had started a game and gained no yards rushing. Needless to say, that will be in the back of his mind in the rematch with the Giants.
Gore's shutout against New York began a string of eight consecutive games to end the season that he did not rush for more than 88 yards in a game. He averaged 3.7 yards or fewer per carry in seven of those games.
But given time to get healthy and refreshed thanks to San Francisco earning the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and gaining a bye week through the first week of the playoffs, Gore had a strong playoff debut in last week's victory over New Orleans.
Though most of the offensive heroics were left to quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis, Gore rushed for 89 yards on 13 carries, averaging 6.8 yards per pop. He also tied Davis for the team lead with a season-high seven receptions – Gore had only 17 receptions the entire season, the lowest total since his rookie season – catching all seven throws that were directed his way.
Gore's 42-yard burst jump-started a stagnant San Francisco offense midway through the fourth quarter and led to a David Akers field goal. The 49ers had picked up only two first downs during the second half to that point.
"That might have given us a little spark," Gore said.
That began a string of three consecutive San Francisco scoring drives to end the game. Davis had the big catches on the 49ers' dramatic game-winning drive in the final minutes – catching a 37-yarder and a 14-yard scoring pass with nine seconds remaining – but it was Gore that got the drive started.
Gore caught passes underneath coverage for gains of 7 and 14 yards after San Francisco had taken over at its 15-yard line with 1:32 remaining. Gore's six-yard reception set up Davis' touchdown catch on the next play.
Gore finished the season sixth among the NFL's leading rushers with 1,211 yards, but only 429 of those yards came during the second half of the season. The Niners appeared intent on pacing Gore and not overworking him down the stretch and he had 20 or more carries just twice in San Francisco's final six games.
The 49ers increased the workload of rookie Kendall Hunter at the end of the season as Hunter had 73 yards on 12 carries in the season's penultimate game at Seattle, then led the 49ers with 76 yards on 16 carries in the finale at St. Louis, when Gore was given most of the second half off and finished with just 9 yards on seven carries.
Hunter finished the season as a nice complement to Gore with 473 yards rushing on 112 carries, a 4.2 average, and he had 23 yards on six carries against the Giants.
But Gore is back to being the lead dog now that it's the playoffs, which is not the way the Giants figure to do it with Jacobs and Bradshaw, who did not play in the November game at San Francisco.
At least in the playoffs, the numbers indicate that both approaches have some merit, despite the widely held perception that the NFL has become a time-sharing league at the tailback position.
Of the dozen teams that originally qualified for the postseason, half had 1,000-yard rushers in 2011, and six of the clubs did not. Of what were arguably the three most explosive offenses in the NFL – in Green Bay, the Patriots, and New Orleans – none had a player among them who rushed for more than 667 yards.
Only half of the NFL's top 10 rushing offenses during the season made the playoffs; then again, so did just six of the top 10 offenses, period. In essence, the feature back/committee mix among the four franchises still playing validates the notion that both paradigms can be successful.
"I still feel like you need two backs," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who signed Williams this season to replace the departed Willis McGahee as an understudy for Rice, said last week. "It's hard to go with just one."
The Niners are of the same philosophy, and they have been intent on developing the explosive Hunter this season as a complement to Gore.
Still, two of the Final Four teams (both notably coached by Harbaugh brothers) feature tailbacks who posted more than 66 percent of their teams' carries and more than 68 percent of the rushing yardage.
The two other conference finalists lack a back with half the attempts or yards. So it's really a mixed-bag message in a league that has evolved into one that is skewed so predominantly toward the pass.
That disparity is pretty graphically reflected in the Final Four.
"I don't know that there's necessarily a right or wrong way," Bradshaw said. "It's kind of in the eye of the beholder. I like the way we do it. But, hey, if you can make the other way work ..."
Clubs, clearly, have made both work.
Of the 20 teams in the last 10 Super Bowl games, nine had 1,000-yard rushers, or tailbacks who carried the ball at least two-thirds of the time. Just five of the past 10 Super Bowl champions featured a 1,000-yard rusher during the season.
There were only two of the last 10 Super Bowls in which both clubs had 1,000-yard rushers. New England has appeared in four Super Bowls since 2001, but lacked a 1,000-yard rusher in two of them. In fact, in coach Bill Belichick's 12 seasons with the Patriots, the team has had 1,000-yard rushers just three times.
This more stark comparison can be made in the NFC game: The Giants statistically were last in the league in rushing offense and had the NFL's worst yards-per-carry average. But they will match up with a San Francisco running attack that was rated No. 8 in 2011.
The Giants are probably better than their numbers. They are the only offense in the Final Four with two backs who each ran for more than 500 yards, the lone franchise playing in the conference title games on which two players logged at least 150 carries.
Even with Bradshaw still somewhat gimpy because of a lingering foot injury, the Giants can also pound at defenses, particularly when they get a lead. It has become Eli Manning's team, and the vertical passing game he has unleashed is paramount, but New York still brands itself a physical offense.
The 49ers thrive on setting a physical offensive tone with Gore. The Giants can be just as physical, but they like to mix it up more with their two backs.
"Like people say, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat," Jacobs said. "The key is to be one of the last cats standing."
And after Sunday, only one of them will be left standing in the NFC.
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