Frank Gore getting better with age

At 29 years old, San Francisco running back Frank Gore is an old man.

Maybe not by society's standards, but as an NFL running back, he might as well qualify for Social Security. Despite his relatively advanced age, the 49ers' all-time leading rusher is showing no signs of slowing down.

If anything, he's getting better with age.

“Every day my admiration for Frank Gore as a football player, every time you think it's as high as it can be, he finds another rung on the ladder to go in my esteem,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “And then even more so as a person. He's just one of the finest guys you'd ever want to be around.”

Gore's reputation is justifiably predicated on what he does with the ball in his hands, but the job he does protecting the quarterback can be equally, if not more, impressive. In San Francisco's 32-7 win over Chicago on Monday night, Gore made a block on Bears LB Lance Briggs that displayed just that.

On a play-action pass in the first quarter, Gore filled a gap where Briggs was blitzing and lifted the seven-time Pro Bowler airborne and onto his back. The block quickly went viral online and gave quarterback Colin Kaepernick time to find tight end Vernon Davis for 3-yard touchdown.

Gore shrugged off the play as a result of good coaching.

"When we watched film, coach Tom [Rathman] was saying that him and [Brian] Urlacher were straight downhill players,” Gore said. “I knew that when he came, I could just attack. Coach likes to say, 'the lower man always wins.' "

Gore was certainly the lower man on that play.

Harbaugh said that because it's a short week coming off a Monday night game, the team didn't get to watch the block together on film, but anticipated it would have drawn plenty of cheers.

"I respect [Briggs], he respects me,” Gore said. “He's been doing a great job at his position for a long time. He's a great player. We talked after the game. He just told me, 'Keep running hard, keep playing hard and stay healthy.' "

For Gore, health has always been key. In just two of his seven years in the NFL, all with the 49ers, has he played in all 16 games -- last year and 2006. Not so coincidently, those were his top two seasons in total rushing yards.

Through 10 games this year, he's on pace for 1,329 yards, which would be the second-best single-season total of his career, ranking behind only 2006 (1,695).
Gore's ability to improve as a seventh-year back started in the offseason.

“I've seen a laser-like focus from Frank,” Harbaugh said in July. “Wasn't with him in the offseason last year. As far as on the practice field, same Frank, same demanding, intense, enthusiastic guy on the field. Wants to play, wants to work, wants to continually get better.”

Compared to the league's elite running backs, Gore matches up favorably. He's seventh in the NFL in rushing (831 yards) and only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is averaging more yards per carry (5.8) with more attempts than Gore (5.3).

Compare him to other backs in the 29-and-older club and he's the best there is. St. Louis' Steven Jackson and Gore's former University of Miami teammates Willis McGahee are in the conversation too, but neither player has done more for their team this year.

It's not something that has gone unnoticed around the league. Even before the 49ers' win over Chicago, Urlacher was singing Gore's praises.

"He's one of the better running backs in the NFL, if you ask me," Urlacher said last week. "He is very underrated. He doesn't get a lot of pub but he does a lot of the dirty work for them."

Paired with second-year pro Kendall Hunter, Gore has helped San Francisco become the NFL's top-ranked rushing team. The 49ers lead the league in yards per game (165.5), yards per carry (5.5) and carries of 10-or-more yards (57). While the league continues to trend toward pass-happy offenses, San Francisco has taken the opposite approach and made it work.

The combination of production and health between Gore and Hunter has rendered big-name free agent acquisition Brandon Jacobs and second-round pick LaMichael James largely irrelevant. Neither player has set foot on the field this season and unless something unforeseen occurs in the coming weeks, that's not expected to change.

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