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Big Plays From The Hyphen

Posted Dec 9, 2011

Notebook: Stephens-Howling's impact; Denting Niners' run defense

Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling races for his 52-yard touchdown Sunday against Dallas.

LaRod Stephens-Howling is quiet to begin with. The running back certainly isn’t the kind of guy who wants to draw attention to himself or be in the spotlight.

As for campaigning for more offensive touches, he’d never be the one to bang his chest about that, either. Ask him about the concept of getting, say, 15 touches a game, and he ponders the idea.

“Well, I think everybody who carries the ball wants to get the ball that many times a game,” Stephens-Howling said. “But there is only one ball on the field and we have a lot of playmakers around here. I just play my role.”

Through 10 games (he missed two with a hand injury and played little in a third) , the 5-foot-7 has 17 rushing attempts and eight receptions. While his work on the ground hasn’t been that noticeable – his 15-yard run last week early against Dallas was his season-best – his work out of the backfield as a receiver has been eye-catching.

Underscored by his 52-yard touchdown scamper of a screen pass last weekend against Dallas, Stephens-Howling had a similar catch-and-run for 73 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh, as well as the key 30-yard reception on fourth-and-2 in Philadelphia and a 14-yard catch on third-and-4 on the game-clinching drive in St. Louis (along with a first-down gaining run on another third-and-4 on the same drive).

Stephens-Howling has averaged 24 yards per reception, an astonishing total for a running back.

“We’ve always got plays that we put in for LaRod and try to get him the ball,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Sometimes, depending how the flow of the game goes, you can or cannot get it to him.

“But he’s had some really explosive plays for us this year; obviously the pass against Pittsburgh that he took all the way, the one (Sunday). We’re going to continue to find ways to get LaRod the ball and get him opportunities.”

There is always a fine line with Stephens-Howling. Playing special teams can be a grind, especially as the kickoff return man and a gunner on punt coverage as well as working on kickoff coverage. “It seems like every time you are on the field you are running a sprint of 20 or 30 yards,” he acknowledged.

Still, Stephens-Howling likes the idea of being an offensive threat, however many times that might be.

“I try to make the most out of every opportunity I get,” he said.

FINDING A WAY TO RUN

The 49ers continue to own the NFL’s best rush defense this season, allowing just 71.8 rushing yards a game and having yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.

“It’s how we all work together,” 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith said. “Everybody knows their run lanes, everyone knows their fits, and everybody does their jobs.”

San Francisco figures to be hampered by the loss of linebacker Patrick Willis, arguably the best at his position in the game. He isn’t expected to play because of a hamstring injury suffered last week.

The Cardinals did run for 80 yards against the 49ers when the teams met the first time, although that was bolstered by a 34-yard run on the lone carry of the day by Chester Taylor – the longest run against the 49ers this season. Beanie Wells had just 33 yards, but he only got eight attempts in a game in which the Cards barely had the ball.

The following week, Wells got his record-breaking 228 yards against the Rams.

"We’ve got some confidence (in the run), and our scheme, we are hitting stride on that,” Whisenhunt said. “We are still a little inconsistent for my taste – 220 (yards) one week and not as much the next -- but we are getting there.”

ROOF WILL BE OPEN

Based on the weather forecast, the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium is expected to be open for Sunday’s game against the 49ers.

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