Niners grinding out wins with super ground game

Posted Oct. 17, 2011 @ 10:15 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

A cutting-edge team with an undeniably edgy head coach in Jim Harbaugh, the red-hot Niners are no doubt on one hell of a run at the moment in the wake of their heart-pounding upset victory in Week Six over the previously undefeated Lions. Coming off their third straight comeback win in hostile territory, the Niners can trace their early success to handling the run well on both sides of the ball.

With RB Frank Gore (three straight 100-yard performances) leading the way, the Niners rushed for 203 yards against the Lions and entered the Monday-night game between the Jets and Dolphins ranked fifth in the league in rushing after their second straight 200-yard performance. The Niners' defense, featuring a formidable front seven and a secondary that is getting better by the week, is currently ranked second in rushing yards allowed, behind the Cowboys.     

The PFW Spin

There are many league observers citing other key factors behind the Niners' surprising emergence as the NFC West's best team, starting with Harbaugh himself, whose tense postgame tiff with Lions counterpart Jim Schwartz took on a life of its own in no time flat. Clearly, Harbaugh's "it" factor is resonating with his troops, who have developed a never-say-die attitude that is reaping huge dividends.

Redemption was a major theme at Ford Field Sunday. After looking erratic, for the most part, with passes that often sailed over the outstretched arms of his intended targets, QB Alex Smith threw a six-yard slant to TE Delanie Walker for the game-winning touchdown with 1:51 remaining, and it was a thing of beauty. At the same time, Walker was able to make amends for muffing what should have been an easy TD catch in the third quarter. CB Carlos Rogers, who just might be the top free-agent addition in the game this year, sealed the deal with a pass breakup. Rogers had earlier given up a big pass to Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who had seven catches for 113 yards but was kept out of the endzone, which is saying something considering how deadly a target the man they call "Megatron" has been for Lions QB Matthew Stafford in the early going.

Clearly, the karma on this team is undeniable.

But its success running the ball and defending against the run is a much more tangible factor that ultimately could turn the Niners' first season under Harbaugh into the story of the year in the NFL.

Ranked second in the NFC in rushing behind the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, Gore is on fire, averaging five yards a carry with four TDs. But making the Niners' running attack even more potent is slashing rookie Kendall Hunter, who is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and providing a most impressive counterpunch. And let's not forget excellent run blocking from the entire offensive arsenal. As for the defense, its success against the run has carried over from last season, with DT Justin Smith and ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman all playing at a Pro Bowl level.

In short, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have picked up where they left off at Stanford, with a running game that is equal parts innovative and explosive.

All of a sudden, a Super Bowl run might not be all that big a stretch.