Who says athletes don't read the newspaper?
It sure seemed like a lot of the San Francisco 49ers saw Ed Bouchette's story in the Post-Gazette yesterday about the Steelers' proud defense not allowing a 100-yard rusher since like forever.
"I took that as a big challenge. I wanted to be the first to do it since 2005," 49ers star running back Frank Gore said.
Gore, who led the NFC with 1,695 rushing yards last season, didn't come close to 100 -- didn't get 40, actually -- which pretty well explains why the Steelers were easy 37-16 winners at Heinz Field. Can you believe 14 carries for 39 yards, a puny 2.8 yards-per-carry average? Gore can't.
Memo to English teachers everywhere:
Do not read the next paragraph.
"Our offense ain't making no plays right now," Gore said.
The man might not have studied grammar at the University of Miami, but he certainly knows how to cut to the chase.
At this point in the development of young 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, San Francisco's offense isn't good enough to win on many days when Gore doesn't run wild. Pitt fans probably still have nightmares thinking about Smith's work as a magician at Utah, spectacularly running Urban Meyer's spread offense and throwing for four touchdowns in a 35-7 win against the Panthers in the Fiesta Bowl after the '04 season. But there has been little magic for Smith in the NFL since the 49ers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the '05 draft. He threw for one touchdown and had 11 interceptions as a severely overmatched rookie, then threw for 16 touchdowns with 16 interceptions last season.
Still only 23, the youngest starting quarterback in the league, he'll continue to get better, but he is just not good enough yet to beat quality opponents by himself.
That's why the other three teams in the NFC West Division probably should call Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offer him a lot of dough for his secret to stopping Gore. Last season, Gore had his worst game against the Minnesota Vikings -- 19 carries for 41 yards. Tomlin was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. Yesterday was even a bit worse.
Smith, who wound up completing 17 of 35 passes for 209 yards with one late meaningless touchdown and one interception that was returned by cornerback Bryant McFadden for a touchdown, indicated the reason had little to do with Tomlin's secrets and lots to do with great Steelers defenders.
"They're tough up front, very stout, and they disguise things well. They give you a lot of different looks and a lot of different pressures. And not all of their pressures are designed to stop the pass. Some are to stop the run. They're very good at disrupting your blocking schemes."
There's no arguing that the Steelers blew up the 49ers' best plans. Nine of Gore's 14 rushes went for 2 or fewer yards, but more than one member of the team's traveling party said that's deceptive. Both Smith and coach Mike Nolan said they would have loved to have seen how effective Gore would have been in the fourth quarter if the 49ers had been able to keep the game closer. Gore had just three carries for 17 yards in the second half.
"Frank is strong at the end of games," Nolan said. "If you take a quarter-and-a-half away from him ... "
"Against a defense like that, you've got to be able to run the ball all four quarters," Smith said. "That's a defense you've got to wear down. Those 2-yard running plays in the first quarter are ones that you hope Frank breaks in the fourth quarter."
Gore didn't seem especially interested in any of the numbers. As disappointed as he was about not being able to get that 100 yards against the Steelers -- Edgerrin James, then with the Indianapolis Colts, was the most recent opposing back to do it, 28 games ago -- he was more dismayed about the loss, the 49ers' first after a 2-0 start. Somehow, they managed to beat Arizona and St. Louis even though the two opposing defenses stacked up to stop him, holding Gore to 55 and 81 yards, respectively.
"It's the offense, period," Gore said. "We ain't helping ourselves. We ain't showed up yet. The defense has been showing up, but we ain't come to play yet. We've got to come together and play as one."
OK, sort of.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .