SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The fullback is something that most NFL teams consider outdated in today’s pass-happy era of football.
So in 2017, when the 49ers made Kyle Juszczyk the highest paid player ever at that position, many weren’t sure if the former Baltimore Raven was worth the $21 million contract he commanded.
Juszczyk has since become an invaluable piece of San Francisco’s offense thanks to his multidimensional skill set, but the 49ers will be without him for the next 4-6 weeks thanks to an MCL sprain suffered last week. Their most immediate concern is this Sunday, as San Francisco opens division play against one of the best defensive lines in the NFL: The Los Angeles Rams.
“I mean, you don’t replace Kyle. He’s kind of one-of-a-kind at fullback,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “No one is going to fully replace him. We’ve just got to do some different things and adjust.”
San Francisco has already brought in seven different fullbacks this week in an attempt to find a placeholder for Juszczyk, but have found no success. Rather than bringing in additional bodies, San Francisco hopes to use existing pieces can bridge the gap.
Despite Juszczyk going down in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over Cleveland, the 49ers still finished with 275 rushing yards — their best rushing performance since 2014. The 49ers are averaging 200 yards per game on the ground, the best in the NFL, but that’s in large part thanks to Juszczyk’s lead blocking.
Juszczyk possesses a unique skill set beyond just blocking. He’s able to run effective routes like a tight end and play physically with the ball in his hands like a top-notch halfback.
“He plays every position,” running back Matt Breida told the Examiner. “He’s smart. He can probably play quarterback if need be. He’s just that good.”
Facing one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, which features 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, the 49ers now have to find a way to keep their offense chugging along without one of their most integral pieces.
“Their defense, they’ve given up some yards, some points and stuff, but they’re an opportunistic defense with very good players,” Shanahan said. “They’ve got a very good team and it’s not a surprise why they were in the Super Bowl last year.”
Late in the third quarter and into the fourth on Sunday, Shanahan attempted to put tight end Ross Dwelley at fullback, but the second-year undrafted free agent was unable to set quality blocks, resulting in several plays of short or no gain.
Another option that the 49ers have explored has been putting an additional running back in the backfield, but no one in that group can match Juszczy’s 6-foot-2, 236-pound frame, which matches up well against linebackers and defensive ends.
“Kyle is definitely one of our best players,” Shanahan said. “We have been playing very physical, I think, in these four games. We can’t lose that at all.”
In 2016, the 49ers experimented with their former defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who stepped in during goal-line attempts as a big, wide body. On Monday, Shanahan mentioned that defensive tackle Sheldon Day was ready to step in as a similar option, but that, too, is an unsustainable game plan.
What may be necessary for San Francisco is putting the ball in the hands of starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has averaged 28.5 passing attempts per game this season, while the 49ers have averaged 38.5 rushing attempts per game — the third-most in the league. Turning to Garoppolo looks even more promising, considering the fact that the Rams will be without injured cornerback Aqib Talib, who will be on the shelf with starting running back Todd Gurley.
“I want to win. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to,” Garoppolo said. “Just whatever it takes. There are different ways to win in this league. Every game’s going to be different depending on what the defense does, what their offense does even and how it affects us.”
Another thing that will throw a wrench into San Francisco’s game plan will be the status of starting tight end George Kittle, who missed Friday’s practice with a groin injury.
While the Pro Bowl tight end is listed as questionable for Sunday, the 49ers say they are prepared to play without one of their most dynamic playmakers on top of Juszczyk and starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who suffered a knee injury against Cleveland.
“It still is a little bit early, so that’s why he will be questionable,” Shanahan said. “We’ll see what news I get later after he gets with the trainers and stuff and gets it checked out.”
With their first divisional matchup on the horizon, the 49ers will face their biggest test of the season, not only by facing the defending NFC champions, but by seeing how they can adjust on the fly without at least three key offensive starters (McGlinchey, Juszczyk and tackle Joe Staley), and possibly four.
It will, perhaps, be the defining moment of their young season.
“I think our guys understand that on their own,” Shanahan said. “I don’t have to tell them too much. We’ve just got to keep working as a team like we have been doing.”