One of the common comments about the 49ers offense facing off against the Saints defense is the idea that the Frank Gore and the 49ers will need to dominate the rushing attack in order to keep Drew Brees and the Saints offense off the field. Frank Gore put together his second best single season total, finishing with 1,211 yards on 4.3 yards per carry.
The folks at Football Outsiders put together a rundown of the five most overrated players from 2011 and Frank Gore was included with Cedric Benson, Plaxico Burress, Marcedes Lewis and Pierre Garcon. They included Gore based more on his boom-bust tendencies. In their success rate statistic, FO ranks Gore 45th among running backs. Success rate for a running back is based on "the percentage of carries where the player gains 40% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down."
Gore put together a very strong stretch in October/November in which he rushed for 100+ yards in five straight games, with the first four all at 125+ yards. Since then he peaked at 88 yards and we have seen the 49ers try and work Kendall Hunter into the mix a bit more frequently. FO ranks Hunter No. 30 in success rate among running backs.
As the team has mixed and matched Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, there have been times I've figured the team was getting Gore some much needed rest to get his legs ready for his first postseason. He is only 30 carries away from his career high in 2006 and an extended postseason run would probably shoot him past that 312 mark.
Over the last two weeks, Kendall Hunter has had his highest carry totals of his rookie season. He rushed 12 times for 73 yards against the Seahawks and 16 times for 76 yards against the St. Louis Rams. On the other hand, Frank Gore rushed 23 times for 83 yards against the Seahawks and seven times for 9 yards against the Rams. It is worth noting that Gore was most definitely sat for much of the game.
Although Gore has not surpassed 100 yards since November 6, it is premature to start saying he's losing something. We had the same discussion early in the season when he had 148 yards through three games. At the same time, the 49ers have shown a willingness to get Hunter in the mix and Hunter has stepped up his game the last couple weeks.
I still think Gore gets the bulk of the carries, but the 49ers have left the Saints something to think about with their developing RB duo. The Saints rush defense is a question mark. They rank 12th in total yards, but that ranking is inflated by playing with sizable leads and forcing teams to get into shootouts with them. They rank tied for second to last in yards per carry allowed at 5.0. That could also be a bit inflated given that defending more against the pass can open them up to some gashing runs underneath.
Football Outsiders ranks them No. 21 in rush defense efficiency and also No. 21 in adjusted line yards (which removes QB scrambles from the equation). You can pick and choose how you want to assess the Saints, but it is safe to say that if the 49ers work to establish the run early on and don't give up too many early points, they should be able to have at least some success. Alex Smith and his receivers will need to make plays in the passing game, but it will be essential to get a solid rushing attack going.