© Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t panic, at least not yet. The 49ers are 4-0 and have another four days to get their house in order before they face the Los Angeles Rams (3-2) on the road for their first NFC West Division game of the season.
It was a tall order on it’s own, before the team announced Wednesday that right tackle Mike McGlinchey would be joining Kyle Juszczyk on the sidelines for 4-6 weeks.
That followed the injury to left tackle Joe Staley, who was given a 6-8 week timeline for his return from a fractured fibula which occurred in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Ahkello Witherspoon also has an uncertain timeline, but was expected to be out for at least a month following his foot sprain against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. There are also four players on the injured reserve list, two of whom can return later in the season (more on them below).
But the injuries to Staley, Juszczyk and McGlinchey represents the loss of a trident of crucial blockers. Staley’s replacement, Justin Skule, has performed admirably in his two starts, as Shanahan spoke to on Wednesday, and has allowed the 49ers to continue their running onslaught, where they rank best in the league with an average of 200 yards per game (tied for sixth with six rushing touchdowns).
Shanahan praised Skule on Wednesday, but added that the pressure on him was eased by early scoring, defensive turnovers and positive team play.
“I think he’s been real good in his two starts,” Shanahan said. “His first game, the biggest negative was those two penalties, and he cleaned those up last week and he was challenged. He definitely held his own… When you play well as a team, you don’t put those guys in as big of a predicament.”
Skule will no longer have the lynchpins of McGlinchey and Juszczyk to aid him.
The 49ers’ new right tackle is Daniel Brunskill, a 25-year-old who was scooped from the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct American Alliance of Football in the offseason. Shanahan compared him to Skule, although he admitted he only knew him as “61” (his number) for a while in camp.
“I feel very similar to how I do about Skule,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t know much about him until he got here in OTAs and training camp. I got to see him then and I became a believer in him… He earned his spot on this team, did a real good job… Got in there for one play against Pittsburgh, did a hell of a job… Very similar to Skule in that the game’s not too big for him.”
Their new fullback won’t exactly be a one-for-one replacement.
Mainly, it’ll be second-year tight end Ross Dwelley, with some snaps from George Kittle and receivers who are motioned back there, according to Shanahan. There’s also the goal-line option of defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who has tried to convince the coaching staff he can also be used on pass plays.
“[Dwelley] would be the next man up,” Shanahan said. “That’s something we use Kittle on too, though. Not necessarily all the exact same, but that’s what most teams do. Not many teams have a fullback on the roster, but you motion a tight end back there and he’s a fullback, so we’ll do that or motion one of our receivers back there to play football.”
Dwelley talked to reporters Wednesday, saying that he has effectively already been playing fullback.
“Really, when we have two tight ends out on the field, the second guy is basically the fullback,” Dwelley said. “Jus just lines up in some different positions to start the play, but really, the second tight end in the fullback in the offense.”
He added that the motioning across Garoppolo from that fullback position before the snap was something that he hadn’t dealt with before Monday night’s 31-3 win over the Browns. In his increased Juszczyk-like role, he’ll see plenty more of those looks, and said he’s already received advice from Juszczyk regarding eye positioning.
“It’s definitely something you want to rep, for sure,” Dwelley said. “Going into the game, I hadn’t repped that, so it was definitely interesting getting in the game. It’s just something you try and feel out, because we’ve got a lot of moving pieces on our offense.”
Shanahan acknowledged a report by ESPN’s Field Yates that the team had worked out seven fullbacks, though they would not be signing any. While he expressed confidence in the abilities of his tight ends to sort of take on the role by committee, Shanahan made no attempt to downplay Juszczyk’s impact in the offense.
“You don’t replace Kyle,” Shanahan said. “He’s kind of one-of-a-kind at fullback. We still use a fullback, you can do that with tight ends also, you motion them there and do stuff, but no one is going to fully replace him. We just have to do some different things.”
As for trades, don’t get your hopes up. Shanahan said, regarding a potential trade for a tackle that, “it doesn’t seem like many [options] are available right now,” and that the 49ers wouldn’t make a move unless it made sense, which, as of right now, it does not from their perspective.
While he acknowledged that getting the ball out quicker on passes can take some of the burden away from the offensive line, Shanahan pointed out that it requires receivers reciprocating by getting open quicker. Don’t expect the 49ers to fundamentally change their offense to compensate for their temporary positional losses.
“Of course, when you lose real good players, both your tackles and a fullback, you always have to make adjustments, but you’re not going to reinvent the wheel either,” Shanahan said. “You’re going to go out and play football.”
There is hope for the second half of the season, when the schedule looks to be at its most brutal. Starting in Week 12, the 49ers face (in order) the Green Bay Packers (H), Baltimore Ravens (A), New Orleans Saints (A), Atlanta Falcons (H), Rams (H), Seattle Seahawks (A).
Staley is expected to be return between Week 9 and Week 11. Both Juszczyk and McGlinchey have timetables to return between Week 10 and 12, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot sprain) was given a timetable of at least a month after suffering his injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3.
There are also injured reserve candidates eligible to return around the same period of time, though none of them are offensive linemen. Kentavius Street (Week 9), Trent Taylor (Week 11), Jalen Hurd and Jason Verrett (both Week 13) are all eligible to return later in the season, though only two of the four can return.
If the 49ers remain solid until reinforcements arrive, the early-season optimism will remain.
“Always when you get bad news, you want to turn it into some good news, so glad they’re coming back in four-to-six weeks,” Shanahan said. “You’re always upset when you lose guys, any guys, especially those guys, but we’re not losing them for the year. We’ve got a decent record right now and have to keep it going and hopefully when they come back they’re a part of something.”