SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shanahan woke up in the Bay Area for the first time in 11 days to the news that the Pittsburgh Steelers — who visit the 49ers this coming Sunday — will be without quarterback Ben Rothlisberger for the rest of the season, thanks to an elbow injury suffered against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I mean, I’m still trying to get to them,” Shanahan said. “Any time they don’t have Ben that’s a huge deal.”
But the 49ers have a catastrophic injury of their own to deal with before their Sunday afternoon home opener against Pittsburgh. After losing starting tackle Joe Staley to a broken fibula late in the third quarter of its 41-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco will begin its search to find a suitable replacement for their three-time All-Pro offensive lineman.
“We look at anything that’s possible,” Shanahan said. “You’re always doing that stuff as coaches … You’re looking at all options out there to see.”
Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, Shanahan revealed the severity of Staley’s injury after the 13-year veteran was carted off the field in the second half. He also said that there would be further testing done to determine the prognosis of the injury.
For San Francisco, the results were as good as they could have hoped for when dealing with a broken fibula: A 6-8-week recovery which will keep Staley off the injured reserve and allow him to return later this season.
For now, though, the task at hand is filling the massive gap left by Staley, who’s started at left tackle for the 49ers since his rookie season in 2007.
According to Shanahan, the team plans on bringing in several free agent offensive linemen to work out, but he does not believe any legitimate options exist on that front.
The more likely option in the near term is rookie tackle Justin Skule, who entered the game in place of Staley and played the rest of the game.
“The game is not too big for him,” Shanahan said. “That’s what we liked a lot about him being a four-year starter in the SEC at Vanderbilt.”
Appearing in 45 games during his tenure at with the Commodores, Skule made 40 starts against some of the premiere teams in the college landscape. The 49ers liked his ability to stand up against top-tier defensive players.
It wasn’t always beautiful, pretty, but [he’s] just kind of a scrapper who, at the end of the play, was on his guy and won his leverage at a very high rate,” general manager John Lynch said after picking Skule 183rd overall in the NFL Draft. “When you find those guys, you look at the level of competition. Well, his level of competition was as good as it gets in college football. Sometimes it’s not always how pretty it looks.”
Skule’s run blocking also allows room for Shanahan to be confident in the 22-year old. During the fourth quarter, Skule helped the 49ers gain 90 of their 259 rushing yards.
“He does a good job. He’s efficient in everything he does,” Shanahan said. “O-line is a grimey game and there’s a lot of stuff they have to do. It’s fun when they pancake people and get noticed for that, but usually guys get noticed when they whiff on people and the quarterback gets hit or they hit the back four yards deep in the backfield.
“It’s about getting on your man and the more reps he gets, the more he can play. I believe he has they type of mind and talent to get better.”
The decision to insert Skule came after Shanahan and his staff considered moving starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey to replace Staley, but Shanahan quickly soured on that idea.
“I don’t see the difference,” he said. “I mean, Von Miller always rushes on out right side. I think there’s movies named after the left side (“The Blindside”), but once you move past that, there’s not much of a difference.”
As the 49ers have a chance to get to 3-0 for the first time since 1998, they’ll prepare for a Rothlisberger-less Steelers team fresh off a two-point defeat in Seattle, but with six days until kickoff, San Francisco’s No. 1 priority is coming up with a long-term solution to replace the injured Staley and protect their own quarterback.