The San Francisco 49ers' ground game hasn't been the same in 2013.
San Francisco had the third-best rushing attack in the NFL during their Super Bowl run, thanks to a diverse scheme that relied some on Colin Kaepernick, a whole lot on Frank Gore, a little on Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, but the most fell on the offensive line.
The big front five, tabbed by many as the best unit in football a season ago, hasn't lived up to its billing in regards to the running game two weeks into the season. Both the Packers and Seahawks have been able to neutralize the running game by stacking the box and forcing Kaepernick to beat them through the air. It has put an onus on the receivers and Vernon Davis to make plays. Against Green Bay, Anquan Boldin and Davis did. In Seattle, they were no match for that elite and physical secondary.
Jim Harbaugh acknowledged the team's struggles running the ball Monday following the drudging in Seattle, but wouldn't offer specifics about the team's failings up front.
"Yeah there are things we'll put our finger on and try to make improvement, significant improvement this week. That's something that early part of the season we want to make the most of – identifying where you can get better and make improvements," he said.
The 49ers averaged 155.7 yards on the ground in 2012. Through the small lens of two games this season, they have racked up just 190 total. Kaepernick is the team's leading rusher with 109 yards on 16 attempts while a majority has come via scrambles on passing plays called in the huddle.
Frank Gore has rushed for just 60 yards on a team-leading 30 attempts.
"We've got to get it done. A lot of teams are playing us eight, nine men in the box. We still got to find a way to get it done," Gore said.
The Seahawks and their secondary had an aggressive scheme, forcing players on the outside to try and win one-on-one matchups with their talented corners Richard Sherman and Walter Thurmond. Sherman allowed just two receptions on six targets, including his interception on a deep pass down the ride side to Davis.
"It's been a focus now for three weeks. I think the big things are the things we talked about yesterday, execution, and then guys winning one-on-one battles," fullback Bruce Miller said. "We have to all work together and play together as one group as a unit. We all have to make the blocks."
The 49ers welcome the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, who have allowed an average of 136 yards on the ground through the season's first two weeks, good for fourth-worst in the NFL.
Winning the NFC title last season put a target on the team's back. After getting thrashed by the read-option in the divisional round last winter, Green Bay spent its entire offseason working on defending the run in preparation for opening day.
The Seahawks - who finished in second place in the division and two points away from playing the NFC Championship game in San Francisco - also had their next meeting with the 49ers on their mind over the last seven months.
The offensive linemen are now charged with making those last two games the anomaly.
But through their domination of the offensive line, the Seahawks defensive front forced terrible performances from usually solid players. Left tackle Joe Staley, regarded as the best run-blocking tackle in football a season ago, posted his worst run-blocking grade given by Pro Football Focus he's had since they started issuing them in 2008.
"It's tough on Frank because that's our guy, that's our guy, that's our workhorse. He puts the team on his back and he carries us most of the time," Miller said. "So to be struggling right now as a group, it's not Frank. Frank's one of the best in the league. I think it's more us, the guys up front and him being patient. I know he's getting frustrated with what's going on, but he has to continue to be patient and we'll get it going and execute better."
Backup Kendall Hunter has received just seven carries, with just one coming in Seattle. Prior to tearing his Achilles in Week 11, he averaged 6.5 carries per game and has come back faster and stronger from the injury, according to multiple accounts. With nearly 2,000 rushing attempts since coming into the league in 2005, Gore's carries could begin to dip while Hunter's rise.
But it hasn't happened yet.