Gore left the Seahawks in his rear-view mirror
The 49ers returned to what they do best to get back on the winning track this week: a steady diet of Frank Gore mixed with a dominant defense and timely special teams play. The result was a 13-6 victory over the Seattle Seahawks that left the Niners alone in first place atop the NFC West.
The grind-it-out victory also took away some of the bitterness the team was feeling earlier this week following a demoralizing loss to the New York Giants.
Thursday’s victory in San Francisco’s NFC West opener followed a vastly different approach than the one San Francisco used four days earlier when it ran the ball just 17 times while Alex Smith threw three interceptions.
A change in offensive philosophy or just taking what the defense was giving up?
Probably somewhere in the middle.
''There are a lot of things you go into a game plan with and you want to have some volume for the things that are working,'' coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. ''That doesn't mean there's not volume for other situations but there's always a tendency to repeat good plays.''
For the 49ers, that meant getting the ball in Gore's hands and letting the running game and defense grind out the win.
Gore rushed for 92 of his season-high 131 yards in the second half despite bruising his ribs midway through Thursday night's game. He also led the 49ers with five catches for 51 yards.
The 182 yards were the most combined rushing and receiving by Gore since Sept. 20, 2009, when he had 207 on the ground and 39 yards receiving during another home victory against the Seahawks.
Overall, San Francisco (5-2) ran the ball on 16 of its final 28 plays against Seattle while milking nearly 18 minutes off the clock.
Smith, the NFL's highest-rated passer through five games, took a back seat to the running game and was content to throw the ball to his check-down receivers more often than not whenever the 49ers did try to pass the ball. He finished 14 of 23 for 140 yards.
''It's not something that we've been majoring in over the first six games,'' Harbaugh said. ''Everything had been more shot down the field or the intermediate throws. Alex did a good job of taking what was there. We did have a couple shots downfield, especially early. We probed that and we had a couple good looks but we didn't hit them.''
Some took San Francisco's scaled-back attack as a sign the team was going conservative as a result of Smith's recent struggles. He has four interceptions over his past two games after throwing five all of 2011, and the 23 pass attempts against Seattle were the second-fewest thrown by Smith this season.
But Harbaugh defended his quarterback, who has been nursing a sore middle finger on his throwing hand for nearly two weeks.
''We had one game that was out of our character, out of his character,'' Harbaugh said. ''For the most part our offense was moving last night. We were gaining the field position advantage. We were in a better situation in this particular game in terms of field position than we were in the previous game.''
Gore told reporters he had difficulty breathing at times against Seattle after getting hit midway through the game and was noncommittal when asked whether he could play if there was a game soon.
“The X-ray was looking good and I’ll take it one day at a time,” said Gore, who has played in every 49ers game since Harbaugh became coach of the team last year. “I’ll find a way to get out there and help the team.”
Fortunately for Gore, the 49ers have an extended rest after playing two games in a five-day period and won't play again until traveling to Arizona on Oct. 29.
That “Monday Night Football” stage could be another showdown for first place in the NFC West – Arizona is 4-2 entering Sunday’s game at Minnesota – but the 49ers are pleased to have some extra time to prepare for it.
''I think our whole team needs some rest,'' Harbaugh said. ''I know our coaches do.''