Frank Gore can literally be a pain to bring down.
Okay, so Gore is more like a Joe Frazier left hook than an Ali jab, but he is the big punch the offense relies on. This is not a secret.
The 49ers have wisely kept the blinders on their top running back this preseason (zero starts thus far) which is a solid strategy for several reasons.
Gore is "the Man" according to new acquisition Brian Westbrook. Truer words may never have been spoken. When I was coming of age in the the 90's, the 49ers dreamed of having a perennial Pro-Bowl caliber running back that could be counted on for 1,000 ground yards a season.
The closest they got was Garrison Hearst, who gave the 49ers three 1,000+ yard seasons between 1997 and 2001, missing the 1999 and 2000 seasons with injury, and Charlie Garner took over temporarily before crossing the bay.
And that was about as good as I had imagined a 49ers run game ever getting. Not since Ricky Watters, and before him Roger Craig, had 49er fans known a reason to expect an effective running game from a West Coast offense.
But that all changed a year after Frank Gore arrived. In his second year, the bruising back out of Miami broke out for almost 1,700 yards on the ground, and even added 485 receiving. Although his yardage totals have subsided over the last few years (as has the number of games Gore plays annually) Gore remains the centerpiece of the 49ers offense.
The physical style of running Gore brings does not come without a little wear and tear. Frank selflessly trades paint with defenders, wearing them down over a game. Of course, there is a consequential effect on his health as well.
Enter the new back-ups in the backfield: Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon.
The three-headed beast from the backfield was initially nicknamed Earth, Earth, and Earth; all were supposed to be hard nosed, strait-ahead, brute runners. Gore, second-year back Glenn Coffee and 230-pound rookie Anthony Dixon were supposed to be steady rock pounder's backing up Gore. Now, however, a subtly slicker side has been added to the equation.
Glenn Coffee, as most know, retired part way through training camp this summer, and the 49ers signed slippery veteran Brian Westbrook in his stead.
Westbrook's artistry in evading tacklers and finessing the ball forward gives the 49er backfield a dynamic that it's lacked for some time. Sure Gore can catch swings, and screens, and scoot up-field. Gore can do just about anything. Westbrook, however, goes over and around mountains; Gore goes through them. Mixing it up this way is just good football sense.
Not as painful as walking into a goring from Gore, the frustration of trying to tackle a ghost can do psychological damage just the same.
Anthony Dixon, the 49ers biggest running back, has also displayed the necessary creativity and moves to get the job done. Originally cast as a big bruising run-you-over type, the rookie's arsenal is full of tricks as well. He can catch decently, juke big guys, and finish runs against defensive backs. Ball security seems to be the only knock against the young man so far, but even his fumble was ruled down by contact when further reviewed.
Dixon ties the skills of both carriers together very well, and when we combine him with Westbrook's goal-line poetry, and Gore's ruthless rumbling, the three-pronged attack will make for a more than useful backfield—hopefully one of the best in the league.
So what has this "earth, earth, earth" attack become? Think of it as a dodge-jab-cross-hook-uppercut sort of combo: there's sweet-science finesse involved, but it will still knock opponents flat.