Niners riding Gore

If it weren't for those four troublesome fumbles, running back Frank Gore would be the 49ers' most valuable player through the first five games of the season. He might still be the team's best player, even with those four turnovers.

Certainly, Gore is the team's most important player.

The 49ers enter their game Sunday against the Chargers as heavy underdogs. Really, their only chance at winning is if Gore continues to run the ball effectively, which would help the 49ers control the clock and take the pressure off quarterback Alex Smith.

Gore enters the weekend tied with the Rams' Steven Jackson for the NFL lead with 465 rushing yards. Gore has a 4.6-yard average. He has also caught 19 passes for 167 yards.

"Frank is a guy that I've got a lot of confidence in," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It's unfortunate that he's fumbled the ball. That bothers me, and it bothers him. I'm glad to see it bothers him, because he works on (correcting) it."

Gore is coming off a career-high 134-yard rushing performance in a 34-20 victory over the Raiders, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

"It tells us we're on the right track," 49ers center Eric Heitmann said. "We're many steps away from being where we want to be, and we got aspirations for improving in all areas, but it lets us know we are making progress."

The 49ers used a third-round pick a year ago to select Gore, who was plagued by injuries throughout his career at the University of Miami (Fla.). He led the 49ers in rushing last season as a rookie with 608 yards despite starting just one game.

In the exhibition season, when Nolan made the decision that Gore would be the starter over Kevan Barlow, the team traded Barlow to the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick.

The move has worked out wonderfully for the 49ers, who expect to use a lot of next year's draft to improve on defense. Meanwhile, the 49ers feel the running back position is in good hands with Gore as the featured back.

"We have a lot of faith him in him," Smith said. "He's a guy who runs for tough yards. It's not a gimmicky thing. This is running between the tackles, off-tackle, he catches the ball well and blocks well.

"He does everything and continues to run and get tough yards. See how many tackles he ends up breaking. It always amazes me. It looks like a one or two yard gain, then all of a sudden he's scrambling on the ground for another three or four yards."

The 49ers have talked about signing Gore to a contract extension, but both sides decided it would be better to see if Gore can remain healthy for the entire season before determining his value to the club.

When Gore was in college, he was a top Miami recruit. While he struggled with injuries, such players as Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee excelled and went on to rich NFL contracts. Gore is trying to elevate himself to the status he enjoyed as one of the nation's top prep players.

"There's nothing better than having a football player who's good, who has something to prove, as opposed to a football player who thinks he has arrived," Nolan said. "He may be very talented, he thinks he's arrived before he has, and you've usually got a bust. Frank's far from that."

Gore is also a team player, who was brought to tears last season when he saw many of his teammates taking losses in stride. The 49ers finished last season with a 4-12 record, and many of those players are no longer with the club.

So, it's not all about personal glory for Gore.

"I'd be happy if we could lead the league in rushing as an offense because of what it would do for this team," Gore said. "And if we keep playing the way we did, we have a shot. But it's a long season."

Said Smith, "He's got that hunger inside. But he wants to earn the respect of his teammates and it shows in his play and in running. His play is very selfless. I don't think he really worries about stats. He does what he's supposed to do. He's a great guy to have in the huddle."

The 49ers like to think of themselves as a 3-4 defense, but their personnel has dictated that they play primarily a 4-3 scheme this season. Against the Raiders, the 49ers had four down linemen for 45 of the 56 defensive plays. They used a 3-4 on nine plays, and a two-man line on two other players. The 49ers drafted Manny Lawson with the No. 22 overall pick because of his pass-rush skills, but Lawson seems to be more valuable to the team right now on first and second downs. Lawson has made a good adjustment to playing outside linebacker. In an effort to keep Lawson fresh during games, the 49ers have regularly substituted him out of the game on third downs, in place of Brandon Moore or rookie Parys Haralson. "We think a lot about it because we have to make a decision what down is the most important," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We've got to get them into the third downs. And we will mix him from time to time. But at this time, we're trying to develop him also as a linebacker, which takes a lot of time. "His pass-rushing needs a lot of work, too. I think we've got a better surrounding cast on third down with Brandon Moore and Parys Haralson than the surrounding case in the base defense to back him up."

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