Season preview positional analysis: RBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Running backs

Everybody knows that Mike Martz's offense is a pass-happy attack. Few realize that the key to the whole deal could be the running back that plays in it.

While Martz likes to air it out, the system also depends on its tailback for optimum production, as was exhibited in St. Louis where Marshall Faulk won a NFL MVP award even while the Rams were leading the NFL in passing yards.

Frank Gore could be the 49ers' version of Faulk, and the NFC's leading rusher from 2006 is looking forward to more space to run in Martz's spread-it-out attack now that San Francisco's passing game figures to be more of a threat and he won't be facing opponents stacking the box with seven- and eight-man lines on a regular basis.

Gore will have some help, too, with newcomer DeShaun Foster and holdover Michael Robinson giving the 49ers both diversity and depth at halfback with Zak Keasey stepping in as the team's new fullback.

The bottom line This looks like the best group of running backs the 49ers have had since Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow were providing a quality one-two punch behind the bulldozing lead blocking of fullback Fred Beasley in 2001. Gore has never looked better this summer and could be in store for a big year, Foster is a proven veteran performer behind him, and both Robinson and Keasey will contribute in their own ways in a very solid backfield.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Get touches in the ground game:
Martz has been known in the past to abandon the running game in favor of putting the football in the air. With running backs such as Gore and Foster in his stable, he must make sure to keep running the football involved as a focal part of his attack and keep the offense balanced.

Catch the football: San Francisco running backs figure to get more opportunities than ever to be used as a receiver out of the backfield. They must take advantage when called upon in the passing game, which figures to happen on a regular basis.

Get everybody involved: With Gore, Foster and Robinson, the 49ers have three quality running backs who all offer something different and can do damage in their own right. While Gore needs to get plenty of touches to be effective and Foster is a top-flight backup, the 49ers need to figure out ways to get the most out of all of their RB weapons. Keasey also has shown an ability to do things with the football in his hands and also needs to get a touch every now and then to keep opposing defenses honest.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Frank Gore

Despite being hampered by an ankle injury, and facing defenses that were stacking the box and designed specifically to stop him first before anything else, Frank Gore still had a quality season in 2007, finishing fifth in the NFC with 1,102 yards rushing and a 4.2 average, which were more than respectable numbers considering he turned out to be basically the lone threat on a San Francisco offense that ranked last in the NFL. This year, a refreshed Gore has never looked better in the summer as he zips through the line, explodes into the second level and takes passes swinging out of the backfield. Gore remains the main man in the San Francisco offense, and a new system surely will revolve around him as its central figure. His team record of 2,180 yards from scrimmage in 2006 definitely seems within reach if the 49ers can control the ball on offense.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener
RB Frank Gore, FB Zak Keasey
Reserves: DeShaun Foster, Michael Robinson
Key new arrivals: DeShaun Foster
Key departures: Maurice Hicks, Moran Norris
Running backs coach: Tony Nathan, first year with 49ers, 17th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A Pro Bowl-quality starter in Frank Gore, a complete back who can do it all. A starter-quality backup in DeShaun Foster, who led the Carolina Panthers in rushing each of the past three seasons. A quality third back in Michael Robinson and a versatile fullback in Zak Keasey.

Weaknesses: Difficult to find many now that the Niners have enough quality behind Gore to make sure he does not get overworked and takes too much punishment. This is Keasey's first year as a starter and he still is learning the fullback position after playing linebacker in college.

Fact check: Frank Gore led the 49ers in both rushing and receiving for the second consecutive season in 2007. Gore finished the season ranked sixth in the NFL in combined yardage with 1,533 after finishing fourth in the league in that category with a franchise-record 2,180 in 2006.

Vital Stat I: 3,405: Rushing yards by Frank Gore in his three seasons with the 49ers, which already places him ninth among San Francisco's all-time leading rushers.

Vital Stat II: 3,718: Combined yards rushing and receiving by Frank Gore over the past two seasons, which places him third in the NFL behind San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (4,272) and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook (4,020) during that span.


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