SANTA CLARA -- Not surprisingly, Frank Gore had a crucial role in two of the 49ers’ biggest running plays in their 23-20 playoff win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
The twist: The running back didn’t have the ball on either one.
The 49ers’ longest gain of the day was Colin Kaepernick’s 42-yard scramble that keyed a second-quarter touchdown drive. As Kaepernick dropped back and took off, Gore, who had released out of pass protection, glanced back and saw his quarterback on the move.
Turning upfield, Gore located Packers linebacker Brad Jones near midfield and threw a diving block at Jones’ feet. By the time Jones bounced back up, Kaepernick was past him, heading for the sideline and open ground.
Kaepernick rushed for another vital first down on the 49ers’ game-winning drive – again with an assist from Gore. On third down and 8 from the Packers’ 38-yard line, Kaepernick lined up in the shotgun with Gore on his right. As Kaepernick took the snap, Green Bay cornerback Jarrett Bush blitzed off the edge from the quarterback’s left.
Gore, though, picked up the blitz, helping free Kaepernick to scamper to his left for 11 yards down the sideline. Five plays later, Phil Dawson kicked the field goal that sent the 49ers to Sunday’s divisional playoff game at Carolina.
Asked this week about Gore’s blocking on Kaepernick’s long runs, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh drew a pickup basketball analogy.
“The guy that’s just going to hit the 30-foot jump shots isn’t necessarily the best player,” Harbaugh said. “You want the guy that’s going to go in and compete, set the hard pick, go in there with the elbows and do the dirty work and compete and help your team win. And Frank does that as good as or better than anybody in the league.”
Gore has long drawn praise from coaches and teammates for his blocking ability in pass protection and his penchant for picking up blitzes. With a quarterback in Kaepernick who is liable to take off running at any time, though, Gore sometimes finds himself essentially becoming a fullback in mid-play, lead blocking for Kaepernick yards downfield.
Case in point: Kaepernick’s 50-yard run in Week 13 last season against the St. Louis Rams. After teaming with fullback Bruce Miller on a block in the backfield, Gore got out in front of Kaepernick and sprung the quarterback with a diving block that sent Rams linebacker Rocky McIntosh head over heels in the air.
“He’s one of the best,” Kaepernick said, “whether it’s lead blocking on a scramble or pass protection.”
Running back Anthony Dixon, who also has played fullback for the 49ers, said Gore’s success starts with his willingness to be the aggressor when throwing a block.
“Frank does a real good job of initiating the contact,” Dixon said. “If you let (a defender) bring it to you, they can slip you, they can push you into the quarterback; there’s a lot of bad stuff that can happen. If you (can) be physical, stand your ground, you can win.
“He’s kind of short, so he’s already got the leverage, and it also helps that he actually wants to do it. When you’ve got a combination like that, it’s hard to beat because he can get under you and he’s also physical.”
Dixon and Kendall Hunter said blocking is a source of pride for the backs under position coach Tom Rathman, whom Gore credited with impressing upon him the importance of being well-rounded.
“When we first got together, he really said if you want to be one of the top guys, all football people will look at that and say you can go a long ways with that,” Gore said. “So I took it in, and that’s why I’m out doing it.”
It helps, Gore said, knowing that giving Kaepernick a few seconds of leeway might be the difference between a lost play and a long gain.
“When things don’t go right and the play breaks down, he runs,” Gore said. “And I know that’s going to frustrate a defense.”