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

The 49ers want their 2009 offense to revolve around a power rushing attack.

They certainly appear to have the right guys to get the job done in their backfield. With third-round draft pick Glen Coffee complementing star tailback Frank Gore behind a set of bruising fullbacks, the guys actually doing the power rushing should be able to carry their share of the load in the team's offensive design.

The 1-2 tandem of Gore and Coffee could become one of the league's better tailback combos, and the emergence of the rookie should be significant in keeping Gore fresh over the long haul of the season.

Coffee was the NFL's leading rusher during the preseason with 249 yards, and Gore's work over his first four seasons speaks for itself. With Moran Norris one of the NFL's prototype blocking fullbacks, the 49ers could have one of the most effective and productive running games in the league.

The bottom line: The 49ers will be better at running back this season than in 2008 for several reasons. First, the addition of Coffee gives San Francisco another effective rushing weapon who can hurt defenses in his own right. Coffee's impact will be felt in other ways as he helps keep Gore fresh and gives opponents another hard-charging runner they must prepare for. Gore was worn down by injuries last year but can be paced differently this season. The return of the bruising Norris also should help the 49ers run right at opponents, which is their intention.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Keep Gore healthy:
He missed two games to injury last year, and the San Francisco offense simply was not the same without him as the running game bogged down. Gore might be the team's most indispensable player, and the Niners must find the perfect balance of hard-charging warfare and sideline rest to keep him going strong throughout the season. After a rigorous offseason workout regimen, Gore was rested throughout the preseason and enters the season in the best shape of his life.

Touches for everybody: Opposing defenses no doubt will be keying on Gore – as they have been since his franchise-record 1,695-yard rushing season of 2006 – so the 49ers must make sure to make use of all their backs, including their fullbacks, who were used as a receiving weapon out of the backfield in Jimmy Raye's offense during the exhibition season. Coffee certainly earned his share of weekly touches during the offseason, and swing back Michael Robinson also can be effective with the ball in his hands.

Wear down the opposition: A power rushing game demoralizes opponents as it physically wears them down. This will be San Francisco's weekly intention once the season begins, and the 49ers must stick to the plan, because this offense is built around the ability to come right at opponents – and then keep coming at them again and again. With Coffee and Robinson both able to share carries with Gore, the Niners have a trio of physical backs who can keep pounding opponents from start to finish.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Frank Gore

Frank Gore has never looked better. And that's saying something, because San Francisco's premier tailback has always looked pretty good since the day he arrived with the 49ers in 2005. But after returning this year to the workout regimen that produced his Pro Bowl season of 2006, Gore looks stronger and quicker than he ever has before in his career. And he is simply salivating at the possibilities he sees for both himself and the rest of the team in new coordinator Jimmy Raye's offense. "The last two years, I didn't finish the season as strong as I wanted, so I went back to my old ways of training when I first got in the league," Gore said. "I put the time in, and now I'm ready." That is, ready for big things as he seeks a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener: RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris
Reserves: RB Glen Coffee, RB/FB Michael Robinson
Key new arrivals: Glen Coffee, Moran Norris
Key departures: DeShaun Foster
Running backs coach: Tom Rathman, seventh season with 49ers (coached team's RBs previously from 1997-2002), 13th year of NFL experience.

STRENGTHS: An elite all-purpose back in Frank Gore who can get yards both outside and between the tackles. A talented young backup in rookie Glen Coffee who displayed outstanding development this summer and should be a strong complement to Gore. Good depth at the position with versatile Michael Robinson being able to play both halfback and fullback. A powerful starting fullback in 250-pound Moran Norris.

WEAKNESSES: The position was hit by injuries this summer to Thomas Clayton, who will miss the season with a torn ACL, and 2008 starting fullback Zak Keasey, who broke his forearm in the first exhibition game and was later released. After keeping just four running backs on their final roster entering the season, the 49ers can't afford any other serious injuries at what otherwise is one of their strongest positions. When healthy, they are virtually set in the backfield.


BY THE NUMBERS

3:
Consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons by Frank Gore, making him the first player in the team's 64-year history to string together back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

4.72: Frank Gore's average yards per carry since 2006, the highest average of any NFL running back with more than 700 carries.

249: Total yards rushing by rookie Glen Coffee on 42 carries during the preseason, a figure that led the NFL in exhibition games.

3,833: Rushing yards gained by Frank Gore over the past three seasons, which ranks second in the NFL during that span only to LaDainian Tomlinson's 4,399.

4,441: Rushing yards gained by Frank Gore in his first four seasons, placing him fifth among the team's all-time leading career rushers.



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