Gore may begin to share the workload

Frank Gore (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

As Brian Westbrook gets more comfortable with picking up blitzes, he's likely to see more playing time. That means workhorse Frank Gore may have to share the load.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – One of the best things about San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore is that he's a workhorse. One of the worst things? He's a workhorse.

Nothing wrong with that, but it's sometimes difficult for offensive coordinator Mike Johnson to work other players into the mix. He's got veteran Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon at his disposal, but neither has played much of a role this season.

With the 49ers, it's all Gore all the time.

"You do need to take some of that wear and tear off of him, but you know Frank Gore," Johnson said. "He doesn't like to come out of the game. He's a warrior. He likes to go, and we have to make sure that as a staff we're giving that load to other people in making sure that we try to keep him fresh.

"But the one thing about Frank Gore -- when he's touching the ball, I think we're winning, or we're going to win. He's a guy that can do a lot of different things. He's good in the running game, he's good in the pass game, and he's good on third down. He's good in the screen game. I mean, he's good in all those areas and we'd like to give him touches, but we have to use our other backs."

So far this season, Gore had touched the ball 149 times – 116 on rushes and 33 on pass receptions, both team highs. Only Chris Johnson (139), Steven Jackson (127) and Maurice Jones-Drew (119) have more carries than Gore.

The 49ers' primary concern has been pass protection. Gore is adept at picking up blitzes, but Johnson said Westbrook is getting more comfortable at it, which could increase his playing time as the season wears on.

"The way blitzes are designed nowadays, blitz protection pickup is the most important thing," Johnson said. "With Brian Westbrook coming here in August, you know that's the hardest part to learn. So we have to make sure that he's sound in all those areas and that he's comfortable and getting the necessary reps in practice to make sure he can go. He's a good back that we have to try to get more touches and more opportunities as we go forward."

MEMORIES OF MERRIMAN: If you're wondering whether the 49ers might have an interest in San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, it's going to be a while before anyone finds out. Merriman has a calf injury and was put on injured reserve with a minor injury designation, which means the Chargers must release him when he's healthy.

It's uncertain if the 49ers would put in a claim, but defensive coordinator Greg Manusky coached Merriman in San Diego in 2005 and 2006 and remembers him as a talented player.

"When I had Shawne, he was a great player," Manusky said. "It's four years ago. I don't know what happened since then. I know as a former coach of his, his attitude, his intensity, his desire as a football player was outstanding. I loved everything about the kid."

Merriman had 39 ½ sacks in his first three seasons but just four in 18 games since then.

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