San Francisco Preps for Frank Gore Injury Aftershocks, Shaun Hill Can't Rattle

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 20:  Running back Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers gets a hand off from quarterback Shaun Hill #13 and runs for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in the first quarter during the home opener at Candlestick Park on September 20, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

As of Tuesday the news was good, though it could be better. There were no tears, no rips, and no destroyed ligaments to end Running Back Frank Gore's season.

However, according to Monday's MRI Gore's right foot is a mess. The ankle is strained and the right hind foot is sprained. Estimates have him likely out for the next three weeks.

Certainly, losing Gore creates a significant set of challenges. The question is, what are they and how big are they really?

First, the San Francisco run game hasn't been as dominating as perception may have it.

Ranked 16th overall, the bulk of their rushing yards came on Gore's outstanding 207 yard performance against the Seattle Seahawks. Aside from that, the games against the Arizona Cardinals (38 total yards) and the Minnesota Vikings (58 yards) were far from dominating.

Certainly Gore getting hurt put a damper on the run game against Minnesota, but there wasn't that excuse in Week One. 

Before you get irate, consider that this is a good thing. For a team to be winning using means other than the ones they were expected to shows depth and an ability to adjust when things aren't going as planned.

The 49ers have shown a solid, if not spectacular passing game and a good defense. Furthermore these two very important facets of the 49er game are still intact despite Gore's injury.

The plan has always been to lean on the defense running game or not. The team intended to do this in order to keep games close and reduce pressure on quarterback Shaun Hill. That doesn't change now with Gore hurt. The onus remains on the defense to make plays.

The defense is ranked 13th overall in total defense after three weeks with six sacks and four interceptions, and are very solid on the ground. The team has yielded just 200 yards over the first three weeks and ranking fourth against the run. Being able to stifle the run game of an opposing team is a big help in terms of controlling the clock and again, plays into the hands of the overall team plan.

Of course with the exception of the Vikings these were not top-shelf run games. Holding Adrian Peterson to under 100 yards is impressive though and shows the grit this defense has.

Coach Mike Singletary has given this team a hard-nosed personality and it shows on the defensive side of the ball. Gore going down will not send a ripple through this unit. 

Note also that despite Gore's absence for almost the entire game, the team was able to keep pace with—and come within a miracle play of beating—Minnesota. 

Shaun Hill is not as prolific as Drew Brees. He does not have Tom Brady's ability to will games into wins. He does not have Peyton Manning's poise and ability to read defenses at the line.

Hill does manage the offense well and while he makes the occasional mistake (like an early fumble in the Vikings game) he generally keeps the opposing defenses from stacking eight men in a box.

Frank Gore is a guy who, while he was better with large, gaping holes, didn't need them. Rookie Glen Coffee will and needs the defenses to respect the threat of a pass. While Hill may not be the future of the position in San Francisco, he is able to do enough to keep defenses from stacking the line.

Speaking of Glen Coffee—nobody expects him to drop 200 plus yards on an opposing defense like Gore did in Week Two. Still, the Niners believe in him enough to wait on promoting fellow rookie Kory Sheets from the practice squad. Mike Robinson is still there, but Robinson is far more a Special Teams player than a full-time running back.

So the onus is on Coffee. On the plus side, he had a great preseason and there was talk that he would have a sizable role in the offensive game plan. That didn't happen, at least not in the first three weeks prior to Gore's injury.

On the downside, Coffee looked nowhere near as effective as we'd hoped against Minnesota (a team nowhere near as dominating against the run this year) and admitted later that he wasn't quite ready to step in. In fact, he had to take a seat after taking over in the first when he had the wind knocked out of him.

How Coffee could be anything but ready when Gore had already been fighting an ankle problem the prior week is cause for concern, but it sounds as if he won't make that mistake again. If he doesn't he seems to have the talent to fill in for Gore and keep the offense rolling.

Finally, keep in mind that while Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye's schemes are run heavy, they do call for the ball to be thrown. In Raye's offense, a tight end like Vernon Davis can make some real noise, something we saw on Sunday.

Davis had an explosion of production with Gore injured and while the dynamic running back is out, Davis may benefit more than anyone.

The offense will need to move the chains and Davis—who has gone from the doghouse to the penthouse in Singletary's eyes—seems to be in a position to do it. Davis has always had talent and if he is ever to fulfill his potential, now is the time.

While wide receivers Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, and Arnaz Battle will be called upon to keep things going, Davis could be the linchpin to continuing the winning ways the 49ers have experienced in their opening games.

Of course, none of this will be easy. There are plenty of problems that could be exposed while Gore is out.

For example, no defense can play perfectly if they can't get off the field. If the offense stalls too often, the defense will tire out and become less effective.

Shaun Hill's ball security will be tested. His accuracy will be pushed. Teams may believe that they can lie back and wait for Coffee to prove they should focus on him and if that happens, Hill will be facing some serious obstacles in the secondary.

Another issue is the lack of depth behind Coffee. I said weeks ago I felt it was risky for the team to keep just three running backs. With Gore gone, what happens if Coffee goes down, especially during a game. Michael Robinson is a decent back but he's never done anything when given spotlight time before. With Kory Sheets on the practice squad, an injury during the game could be disastrous.

Plus, since Sheets is not on the main team, he's not getting a tremendous amount of reps. If he does get called up, how long will he take to get up to speed?

All these little ripples may amount to very little. Perhaps Gore is back in two or three weeks and things revert back to normal. Maybe some good will come out of it and Raye and Singletary will allow Coffee to spell Gore more often to cut down on his wear and tear. If that happens, the 49ers will have a back with something left in the tank for a possible playoff run.

Still, despite the other strengths which the team has, Gore is still a huge cog in this machine. When you remove a guy like him, there are bound to be affects and it can be a little unnerving to see whether those will be good or bad.

On the surface, it appears like the aftershocks of Gore's injury won't throw this team off.

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