49ers rushing offense
Despite the turbulence and transition the 49ers experienced on offense during the final two months of the season, one constant never really changed: The Niners want to run the football, and they want to do it with four-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore.
In several ways, this was one of the best seasons of Gore's distinguished eight-year career. After two knee reconstructions in college, Gore was supposed to be slowing down and breaking down at this point in his career at age 29. Instead, with the 49ers monitoring carries to keep him fresh, Gore responded with bruising bursts and flashing dashes to remain the bell cow of the offense on his way to finishing fifth in the NFC with 1,214 yards rushing, Gore's most since his franchise-record 1,695 yards in 2006. Gore's 4.7-yard average per carry was his best in three years, and his 258 carries was his fewest ever in any season Gore has played 15 or more games.
Gore is the franchise's all-time leading rusher (8,839 yards) and he is still playing at the top of his game. But like the rest of the offense, he wasn't quite the same down the stretch after the 49ers changed quarterbacks, which changed the flow of the offense. Gore went the final nine games of the season without producing a 100-yard outing, and he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in five December games.
That doesn't mean the Packers shouldn't plan to see a heavy dose of Gore again, like they did in the opener, when he set the tempo with 112 yards rushing on just 16 carries. The Niners have kept Gore fresh for moments like this, and they won't worry about his workload against the Packers as the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack attempts to pound the league's 17th-ranked rushing defense and keep the dangerous Green Bay offense off the field.
The Niners absorbed a considerable blow when Kendall Hunter, Gore's speedy backup, tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for the season on Nov. 25. Hunter rushed for 371 yards and a 5.2 average as a terrific change-of-pace complement to Gore. Fortunately for the 49ers, rookie LaMichael James emerged in a similar role over the final month after taking his first NFL snap on Dec. 9. James had a career-high 49 yards rushing in the season finale and may be even more slippery than Hunter.
San Francisco's backs run behind one of the best and brawniest run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL. Left tackle Joe Staley and mauler-supreme left guard Mike Iupati both were named Pro Bowl starters this year. Center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis all were named Pro Bowl alternates, and the Niners might even be best running to their right, where Davis is one of the best at clearing out space for the run game.
Fullback Bruce Miller is an excellent lead blocker who had just five carries this season. The Packers also must be wary of the footwork of Kaepernick, who finished as San Francisco's second-leading rusher (415 yards, 6.6 average, 5 TDs on ground) despite starting just seven games. The 49ers will call designed run plays for him, and the Packers can expect to see Kap operate out of the Pistol offense, which features read-option plays that could finish with the football in his hands.
Packers rushing defense
Green Bay couldn't stop Frank Gore in Week 1 or Adrian Peterson in either of the regular-season matchups. If that's the case in Round 2 against Gore, the Packers will have almost no chance of advancing to the NFC Championship Game.
Last week's playoff win over Peterson and the Vikings offered some encouragement, with Peterson held to 99 yards. Whether that's a sign of things to come or simply a byproduct of the Vikings forced to use a quarterback who couldn't throw the ball in the ocean while standing on the beach is a matter of debate.
The Packers had better hope the performance against Peterson wasn't a matter of circumstances because the statistical link is undeniable. In their 11 wins, they allowed 1,100 rushing yards. That's 100 per game, a total skewed by Peterson's 210 yards (and the Vikings' 240) on Dec. 2. In their five losses, they allowed 796 rushing yards, or 159.2 per game. The 49ers rumbled for 186 on 32 attempts in the opener.
The Packers are solid up front with their base defense. B.J. Raji, an undeserving Pro Bowler last season, had a Pro Bowl-caliber season this year and is an every-down force. Ageless Ryan Pickett holds firm against one double-team block after another, and C.J. Wilson is an underrated run defender, as well. Raji is listed as the starting nose tackle but Pickett does most of the dirty work at the nose. The depth is a question mark. Backups Mike Neal and Mike Daniels are having good seasons but the strength of their games is getting after the quarterback. At some point, they're going to be thrown into the mix on running downs.
The inside linebackers are A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. The strength of Hawk's game is playing the run. Jones is the team's third starter at the other inside position, following season-ending injuries to Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith. They'll be challenged by the sheer size and physicality of the 49ers' blockers. Outside linebackers Clay Matthews, Erik Walden and Dezman Moses did an excellent job of funneling Peterson to the inside last week. That will be the task again this week given Gore's ability to turn the corner in Week 1 and quarterback Colin Kaepernick's scrambling ability.