- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - As Bruce Miller swung away and trash-talked linebacker Dan Skuta from across the locker room pingpong table, Jim Harbaugh emerged to officiate.

San Francisco’s coach caught wind that Miller has been touting himself as the 49ers’ best football-playing pingponger and wanted to see for himself.

Miller choked. Harbaugh scored, Skuta up “14-7, 14-8, 15-8, 16-8, 17-8 … Oh!”

“You’re the champ?” Harbaugh questioned. “Come back, Bruce!”

It was lighthearted and relatively stress-free mingling between Harbaugh and his players before practice Thursday in the wake of recent reports that the fourth-year coach has lost his locker room. At least for a day, that sure didn’t seem to be the case.

Harbaugh appreciates competitive fire in any form, from football to table tennis and everything in between.

“Oh, yeah, love it,” Miller said.

On the field, Miller’s blocking has again been a key reason Frank Gore is breaking free for big gains, finding the smallest of holes and often going untouched until he’s deep into runs of 8 to 10 yards. The St. Louis defense knows the challenge it will face Monday night trying to stop the 49ers (3-2) and these two.

“Bruce Miller, the ball follows him a lot,” Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “They have very good blocking schemes. They change them up week to week depending on the looks that they get.”

Newly engaged, Miller recently bought a house after receiving a three-year contract extension in March. The 49ers are committed to keeping a key member of their running game through the 2017 season.

Gore couldn’t be happier to have Miller sticking around.

“That’s as close as a relationship as I’ve seen - a running back and fullback,” Harbaugh said. “And if you can’t get along with Bruce Miller, then there’s something wrong with you. He’s just one of those great guys.”

They know all too well what it’s like without him.

The do-everything Miller, who converted from college defensive end to NFL fullback, was lost for the season last Dec. 15 with a left shoulder blade injury sustained during a win at Tampa Bay. San Francisco greatly missed his contributions the rest of the way before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title game.

“Everyone knows how much Bruce does for this offense and what he means to this offense, so having him healthy and back is a huge asset for us,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.

Still, Miller helped pave the way for Gore’s seventh 1,000-yard season in nine years and fourth in a row. He has been equally as reliable so far in 2014.

“He’s better than ever. He worked hard in the offseason. He was in there when nobody else was in there,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Bruce is a guy that gets football. Bruce can do a lot and handle a lot. Bruce can think his way through an issue as it’s happening, and that’s a great quality in anybody, really, in life, sports, on the field.”

Coaches are quick to credit Miller’s instincts for being in the right place, reading situations on the fly and reacting. Sometimes, it’s all about getting out of Gore’s way.

Miller appreciates the compliment.

“I love hearing that because I take a lot of pride in that, the mental part of the game. Everyone is physically talented here so I try to gain an advantage where I might not be as physically talented,” Miller said.

NOTES: TE Vernon Davis, who missed Sunday’s win against the Chiefs with a back injury, was on the field in a non-contact jersey. … RB Marcus Lattimore, the team’s 2013 fourth-round draft pick, is eligible to return after Monday’s Week 6 game at St. Louis. Lattimore spent his rookie season on injured reserve after tearing three major ligaments in his left knee in October 2012. Harbaugh said he likely will wait to begin practicing until after the Oct. 26 bye and his health can be evaluated over a 21-day stretch. “That’s the direction we’d like to go because I think it’s the best for Marcus,” Harbaugh said. “He hasn’t played football in a year-and-a-half and if we can simulate a good three-week training camp period and then activate after that and turn him loose.”

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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