San Francisco 49ers: Will Frank Gore Re-Emerge as a Factor in the Passing Game?
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In addition to his status as one of the top pass-blocking running backs in the NFL, Gore can catch the ball pretty well, too.
Maybe it's just me, but that seems to be a forgotten fact as of late, given his struggles in this department during the regular season a year ago, as well as the boost the 49ers corps of wideouts received this spring.
While tight end Vernon Davis was undeniably the most valuable pass-catcher in the two playoff games, it was Gore who led the team in receptions. After hauling in just 53% (17 rec. on 32 targets) of passes thrown his way in the regular season, Gore made good on 13 of the 15 passes QB Alex Smith fired his way during postseason play, resulting in a much improved conversion rate of 86%.
Since replacing Kevan Barlow as the Niners' feature back in 2006, Gore had been targeted in the passing game at least 66 times in the five years leading up to 2011. In 2010, the versatile ball-carrier hauled in 46 passes on 73 targets, despite sitting out the final five games with a broken hip. That season, Gore actually posted a career-best 9.8 yards per catch and was on pace for a career-high 106 targets before the season-ending injury occurred.
So, why the substantial drop off in 2011? Was it the arrival of Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman? Or are Frank's abilities as a pass-catcher suddenly declining?
Gore's performance in the 2012 playoffs hints that it's certainly not the latter, and Harbaugh's evident confidence in his starting running back's abilities lead us to believe it's not the former, either.
Do you envision a bounce-back season from Gore as a receiver in 2012?
The biggest factor, in my opinion, was that Harbaugh's offensive game plan throughout the regular season didn't leave much room for the backs to find a rhythm in the passing game.
Of course, Gore's temporary case of the butterfingers throughout the second half of the season didn't help his cause, either.
The 49ers ran the ball 498 times in 2011, while passing just 451 times. Comparing that to 2010, where the Niners passed 500 times and ran just 401, you can see just how much of a run-heavy attack Harbaugh and his staff actually employed.
Much of this, of course, is related to the fact that the 49ers led throughout the majority of their 16 regular season contests in 2011.
Harbaugh's commitment to draining the clock via the run game and relying on a hard-nosed D worked extremely well, but the 49ers—with new, explosive weaponry on offense—can be expected to sustain more drives in 2011 while featuring a well-balanced offensive approach.
But if it indeed plays out in that fashion, will it necessarily lead to Gore re-emerging as an effective receiver out of the 49er backfield?
Projected backup Kendall Hunter hauled in 16 passes in 2011, and his 12.2 avg on those receptions make a claim that he'll continue to provide value in the passing game as well.
Rookie RB LaMichael James is an electrifying home-run threat who could garner some looks, too. The 49ers will surely look for any way possible to safely utilize James' talents.
There are a few factors working in Frank's favor as well, though.
For one, Gore is undeniably the most capable pass blocker in the group. Hunter and James each seem to have a promising future in the NFL, but neither have the in-depth playbook knowledge and general understanding of assignments that Gore possesses.
Plus, Gore clearly has the track record of an accomplished pass-catching RB and remains one of the 49ers biggest on-field leaders.
So, what gives?
You could make a convincing case that no player currently in the NFL has worked harder to maintain a successful football career than Frank Gore. After suffering several injuries resulting in numerous surgeries, Frank the Tank has utilized hard work and a true dedication to all-around improvement his entire career.
At age 29, his offseason training remains every bit as rigorous and demanding. Now in the midst of his eighth straight 49ers training camp, Gore decided to join the rest of his teammates in Santa Clara in their quest to improve each and every day.
Click here to check out Gore's interview at training camp and read about his appreciation for the added competition, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Overall, Gore remains a potent threat on swing passes and dump-offs, being able to find openings in the defense. Hunter and James are probably best-suited working from the slot and working sideline routes, but it remains unforeseen how often Harbaugh and his staff will be willing to spread the offense in that manner.
The additions to the backfield and progression of Hunter should help keep Gore fresh for a playoff run, and perhaps transferring some of the Pro Bowl back's touches from the run game to the passing game will help even further.
The speedy additions at WR in Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins as well as the presence of Vernon Davis will make it difficult for defenses to prevent the 49er running backs from finding open grass.
Gore may not be as explosive as Hunter or James, but his vision and patience remain at an extremely high level.
If Gore does re-emerge as a significant threat in the passing game this season, it'll serve as yet another dimension to the 49er offense in its quest for Super Bowl glory.
Do you expect Gore to rebound as a receiver in 2012? Share your thoughts below.
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