Frank Gore San Francisco 49ersThe 49ers have a good one in Frank Gore. Through the first five years of his career, Gore was the only bright spot in an offense mired in mediocrity. Even after drafting Oklahoma State speedster Kendall Hunter in 2011 and the even speedier LaMichael James in 2012, no one has been able to supplant the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher as the primary running back.

Gore is 30 now — prime retirement age for most NFL backs — and through two games of the 2013 season, it’s beginning to look like his career is finally starting to arch downward. Against Green Bay, he rushed 21 times for only 44 yards and a touchdown. That’s an abysmal 2.1 yards per carry average despite being well above his career carries per game average (16.4).

Against Seattle it was even worse — nine attempts for 16 yards.

The question is whether it’s actually Gore’s fault.

Looking to the pistol

Remember back in January when Gore said he didn’t think the pistol was “real football”?

From the Sacramento Bee:

For Gore, the challenge of picking up the read-option came at the point of the handoff, when the quarterback makes the split-second choice of leaving the ball in the running back’s arms or yanking it away.

“I had to adjust because I don’t know if I’m going to get the ball or not,” Gore said. “I’ve just got to be patient, stay on my course. And if I got it, I’ve got to adjust to what I see.”

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman acknowledged there may have been a few bumbled exchanges when the 49ers were working out of the pistol last spring, and he indicated it was an area in which James, who ran the read-option extensively at Oregon, was ahead of the eight-year veteran Gore.

Gore changed his tune since, saying “I love it now” and “if it helps us get where we want to go, I’m with it.” Whether it’s helping him get anywhere this season is up for debate. It’s a tale of two opponents when it comes to success-by-formations:

Pro-style formations

  • Against the Packers, the 49ers ran Gore out of pro-style formations (I-formation, Offset-I, Single-back and Shotgun) 11 times and only gained 14 yards (1.3 YPC). Three of those rushes went for a loss and only two went for over three yards.
  • Gore fared much better in the limited pro-style looks he got against the Seahawks. He carried the ball five times out of pro-style sets and gained 14 yards doing so (2.8 YPC).

Pistol formation

  • Maybe it was because Green Bay’s defense had one eye on Kaepernick, but Gore got a ton of carries out of the Pistol and did fairly well. Of his 21 carries, nine came out of a Pistol set and he gained 30 yards on those plays (3.3 YPC).  His longest rush out of the pistol was 8 yards.
  • The Seahawks shut Gore down rushing from the Pistol. He only had four attempts and he only gained four yards. thanks to two backfield stops.

With neither formation proving beneficial, we look to Gore’s blocking:

None of the 49ers’ offensive linemen scored terribly on Pro Football Focus against the Packers in terms of run blocking: Joe Staley and Anthony Davis both scored -0.4 while Jonathan Goodwin and Alex Boone were both marginally positive (0.6 and 0.7 respectively). Mike Iupati graded out as the best blocker in the group with a +1.2. Gore’s offensive line was worse against Seattle, with all five in the minus and Staley grading out worst in the group at -4.9.

Bruce Miller hasn’t been stellar so far this season either. After grading out a whopping +12.5 in run blocking last season and only two games in the red (-1.0 or worse), Miller’s cumulative score through two games is -2.1.

Then there’s Delanie Walker’s replacement, Vance McDonald. The rookie tight end stayed in to run block on 14 plays against the Packers and earned a PFF grade of -1.5. Against the Seahawks, the 49ers used him even less — 9 plays, scoring a dead-even 0.0.

We still don’t have our answer

So I did what Hank Schulman would commend me for — I used my eyes. Let’s look at some tape:

Pistol — Read-option handoff between left tackle and guard for two yards

Initially, Gore has a big hole to run through with only M.D. Jennings to beat. But Staley can’t initiate or sustain inside leverage on Ryan Pickett. Even if he had, Iupati is held up at the line by B.J. Raji, unable to get to the second level and block A.J. Hawk. What would have been a big gain goes for only two yards.

Stretch play right for -2 yards

Jennings was able to run free because Anquan Boldin never had a chance to adjust and block him. If you watch closely, Boldin shows up in the screen adjusting his angle — he heads to block Jennings, realizes he can’t and goes down field. But this play was doomed from the start because no one on the offensive line sustained their blocks, and neither did Kyle Williams out wide.

Dive between left guard and tackle for 2 yards

There’s so much movement and deception on the offensive line during 49ers’ running plays, but so far this season, linebackers and defensive backs are free to make tackles. On this play, Alex Boone completely misses Chancellor, who’s stacked against the run. Bobby Wagner goes unblocked before contributing on the tackle as well.

Could Gore be losing a step? Possibly. But the blocking hasn’t been there for him so far, and the tape is ample proof. Through two games, the best run blocking offensive line in the league has taken a big step back, and if it corrects itself, Gore’s ability to chunk defenses will correct itself as well.