SANTA CLARA — Over the last three weeks, the San Francisco 49ers’ All-Pro left tackle Staley has been seen rehabbing a broken fibula, suffered in a 41-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 15.
While Thursday night’s Halloween tilt in Phoenix was already intriguing for its matchup between the Nos. 1 and 2 picks from the 2019 NFL Draft, there was at least some hope that San Francisco would also see Staley’s return.
According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, though, San Francisco may have to wait at least another week. With limited practice time between Sunday’s shellacking of the Carolina Panthers and Thursday’s kickoff, Staley is doubtful to play.
“Probably [feeling] pretty close to last week,” Shanahan said. “He was limited all last week, limited this week. Without us having a full-speed practice, it’s going to be kind of tough to simulate some stuff here in this day and a half. So, we’ll see how he feels.”
From side side-shuffles hours before kickoff against the Los Angeles Rams to jogging in the rain just ahead of game time in Washington, Staley looked to be healing steadily from an injury that could have cost him the entire 2019 season.
The 13-year veteran even returned to practice last week, five weeks after sustaining the fracture in his left leg, which was compromised after running back Raheem Mostert was shoved into it late in the third quarter of the Week 2 win.
On the quicker side of an estimated 6-8-week recovery estimate, Staley was limited during last week’s set of practices in Santa Clara, being held to individual drills and prohibited from participating in team reps.
Having to prepare on a short week after manhandling the Panthers 51-13, Staley is expected to see much of the same this week, as San Francisco held Tuesday’s practice inside of Levi’s Stadium for better lighting during its first evening practice of the season.
“I think it was just tough not having a full practice this week,” Shanahan said. “If we did, I think I’d be — and he would be — a little more optimistic about it. I’m sure he could if we just committed to it, but it’s pretty risky when we don’t put him through a bunch of stuff today and tomorrow. We weren’t able to do enough last week, so all that stuff plays into it.”
The good news for the 49ers is that, without Staley, starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee) and fullback Kyle Juszczyk (knee), their offense has still been effective, particularly in the running game.
With rookie offensive lineman Justin Skule stepping in for Staley and third-year tackle Daniel Brunskill filling the void left by McGlinchey, San Francisco has averaged 182.2 rushing yards per game since Week 2, including a 275-yard outburst against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football in Week 5 and a 232-yard performance against the Panthers on Sunday.
Since Staley’s injury, the 49ers have maintained their position as one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL. Through Week 8, San Francisco sits at No. 2 in rushing, averaging 181.1 yards per game, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens (204 ypg).
“You always want to get guys back healthy,” said 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “It’s obviously part of the season. But like you said, the two young guys have stepped up really well. I thought Justin [Skule] and Daniel [Brunskill] this week, same as the weeks before, did a great job. You really don’t notice those guys so much.”
San Francisco’s Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, who has made a point of being aggressive at the point of attack in the run game, has been equally impressed with the 49ers’ effort up front, including fellow tight end Ross Dwelley, who has replaced Juszczyk as San Francisco’s lead blocker.
“Just being able to have so many guys that can fill in, it’s incredible,” Kittle said. “For them, just being able to get those reps, that was huge for me in my rookie year. That’s how you get better at the game.”
Still, the common feeling in the 49ers locker room is that they’ll need Staley — along with the rest of their injured starters — back soon, especially as they head into the most difficult portion of their schedule, facing the Seattle Seahawks (6-2), Green Bay Packers (7-1), New Orleans Saints (7-1) and Ravens (5-2) over the next seven games.
San Francisco would certainly rather have Staley for that stretch than rush him back too soon.
“I put him more in doubtful whenever I have to do that,” Shanahan said. “But there’s still a chance.”