Packers To Face NFC's Top Running Back

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Nearly every team in the NFL has a feature running back opponents must contend with, but the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore is beginning to put himself in another class.

With 1,217 rushing yards this season, Gore is the No. 1 back in the NFC and is third in the NFL in rushing yards behind San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (1,324) and Kansas City's Larry Johnson (1,312).

He brings his gaudy and league-leading 5.5-yard-per-carry average into Sunday's matchup in San Francisco against the Green Bay Packers, who face the task of not only straightening out a run defense that has struggled the last two games but doing so against an elite player.

"He's a downhill runner who runs very hard," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "He uses his leverage great, and he has speed to run away from everybody. He's definitely one of the best backs.

"It's a big challenge for us, a big test, and I think we're up for it."

The Packers need to be. Sporting a run defense that ranked in the league's top 10 for much of the season, Green Bay has allowed 413 rushing yards in the last two games (235 to Seattle, 178 to the New York Jets) to drop to 17th against the run.

There's no simple explanation as to how the Packers can hold Minnesota's Chester Taylor just 75 yards in Week 10 and then allow 201 to Seattle's Shawn Alexander two weeks later, but the players say they've seen on film what's happening and it's up to them to get back to playing more sound run defense.

"A lot of guys were trying to do too much, trying to help out the guy next to him when you have to take care of your responsibility," defensive lineman Corey Williams said. "When you do that, it opens up gaps, and every time one opens up, the running back always finds it.

"We have to stay in our lanes this week. You can't get out of your lanes against this guy, because any little crease he sees, he's going to hit it."

Gore also isn't afraid to hit anyone standing in his way. With a compact 5-foot-9, 212-pound frame, Gore packs power behind his pads and the Packers can't take for granted that he'll go down when contact is made.

"Some running backs get a little tentative when they see people in the hole, but this guy goes right through," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "He's a tough guy."

He's been tough enough to overcome two serious knee injuries in college at the University of Miami, and he battled through shoulder and groin troubles to rush for 608 yards in a part-time role as a 49ers rookie last year.

{sportsad300}This season, San Francisco has designed its ground game around Gore, and he has taken advantage with six 100-yard performances, including a career-high 212 yards in an upset victory over Seattle on Nov. 19. Four of San Francisco's five wins have come when Gore has rushed for at least 125 yards.

The Seattle outing highlighted a three-game stretch in which Gore rushed 67 times for 505 yards, a 7.5-yard average, before being limited to a season-low 40 yards by New Orleans last week.

"This year he's healthy and our offensive line is more mature," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We've added people like (veteran guard) Larry Allen, ... and the wide receivers have helped him a lot too, just in blocking. They've made some big blocks, finished off a couple DBs on some long runs.

"I don't know that we've done some miraculous thing and made some guy who was a regular Joe become a great player, other than to try to create the structure, the environment and the system that allows him to carry the ball on the type of running plays he's good at."

The Packers are studying those very plays on film this week and have to figure out a way to get as many defenders to the ball as possible, which could require some adjustments. Williams, normally a defensive tackle, has practiced some this week at right defensive end, perhaps with the idea of providing more outside run support on early downs. Also, defensive end Michael Montgomery was added to the injury report on Thursday and is out with a knee injury.

It's a tough week to face Gore coming off the two poor games against the run, but the upside is if the run defense comes up big, it could signal a return to the early-season success.

"We have to hit him and gang-tackle him," Williams said. "You can't come in and arm-tackle that guy, because what I've seen on film, he's running through linebackers, d-lineman, all that type of stuff. We have to have our hard hat on this week because he can tote that pill."

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