SANTA CLARA, California — The San Francisco 49ers have gone from one of the NFL's worst rushing teams in September to the league's best in November, and it's easy for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to identify the players on his unit who have made it happen.
From the play up front of a physical line, to the lead blocking of fullback Bruce Miller, to the spirited running of halfback Frank Gore, the ground game has carried a San Francisco offense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in rushing but is last in the league in passing.
Roman said quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with his fakes at the line of scrimmage, and tight ends and wide receivers, with their blocking down the field, also have played significant roles in a rushing attack that has averaged 183.8 yards per game during a five-game winning streak that has San Francisco 6-2 at midseason.
"It's a lot of different things," Roman said Thursday. "Frank, specifically, is just getting better and better, and there's cohesion out there with our offensive line. They're doing a great job. With all our guys, if you're not carrying the ball, you're blocking somebody."
The 49ers rushed for a season-high 221 yards during a 42-10 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 27 that took San Francisco to its bye week. The Niners and their resurgent run game return this week to face a stiff challenge against the Carolina Panthers and the NFL's second-ranked run defense.
The Panthers (5-3) may present the 49ers with a unique look. Most San Francisco opponents this season have been loading the box with eight and sometimes nine defenders. Carolina's defense, ranked third overall in the NFL, comes at opponents a different way.
"Carolina's an interesting team because I really believe they think they can stop the run with a seven-man front and they've been doing that quite well," Roman said. "From a football perspective, you are living large and playing with house money if you can do that. It's going to be a challenge, because they're the best team we've seen that plays the run in seven-man spacing."
Nobody has stopped the 49ers on the ground since the first two weeks of the season, when San Francisco failed to surpass 100 yards rushing each time and Gore was limited to just 60 yards rushing on 30 carries in the two games.
Gore has since climbed to seventh in the NFL with 618 yards rushing and is back on track toward the second-most productive season of his career. And the line in front of him, which also was slow to get in gear during September, is back to its trademark bruising style.
With all five starters earning recognition last season as either a Pro Bowl starter or alternate, the 49ers were confident it was just a matter of time before that unit was playing back to its high standards.
"With the talent we have and as hard as we work, I think it's kind of expected of us," right tackle Anthony Davis said. "We just kept after it, doing the same things we've been doing, sticking to our techniques and stuff like that. If we work as hard as we do with the coaching we have and the talent we have, that's what's going to happen."
In the pass-happy NFL, the 49ers have finished with more rushing yards than passing yards in three of their past six games. And they've done it with opponents increasingly committing more defenders to stopping the run.
The Niners, who finished last season fourth in the NFL in rushing, just keep on churning out yardage on the ground anyway.
"We definitely have seen a lot more guys in the box," Miller said. "But that's going to happen with the way we've run the ball in the past. We still have good number counts to get body on body. Our guys are just doing a good job of winning individual battles up front and making lanes for Frank."
Gore, San Francisco's all-time leading rusher, needs 543 yards rushing over the second half of the season to become the 28th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 career yards.
NOTES: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Thursday he expects outside linebacker Aldon Smith to play against the Panthers. Smith has been practicing with the team all week after returning to the 49ers following an excused six-week layoff during which he attended to personal matters. "I'm sure he'll play some," Fangio said. "If nothing happens between now and then, I'm anticipating that. He's a little rusty, obviously, but I expect him to get it back very quickly."