SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers offense won’t have its most veteran tackle, it’s most potent weapon or its starting running back on sunday, but it will have Emmanuel Sanders.
The 10th-year receiver — who’s been one of Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite targets since being acquired a month ago — was banged up during Monday’s loss to Seattle, suffering an unspecified rib injury. Despite not participating in practice this week, he was not among the players San Francisco listed as inactive before their 1 p.m. game on FOX against the Arizona Cardinals.
While 49ers will not have tight end George Kittle (left leg), left tackle Joe Staley (finger surgery), starting tailback Matt Breida (ankle), linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (concussion) or defensive tackle D.J. Jones (groin), having Sanders at least dressed and present can have an impact on the offense.
In three games with San Francisco, he’s caught 13 balls on 18 targets for 161 yards and two touchdowns. No other healthy 49ers receiver has more than 228 receiving yards over the entire season. Sanders draws attention in the slot, demanding coverage from linebackers and safeties, meaning he can clear out the middle even when Garoppolo doesn’t look his way.
It’s unknown how effective Sanders can be — or how much he’ll be able to play — due to the rib injury. It could impact his ability to breathe, and the kinds of routes head coach Kyle Shanahan has him run; it’s unlikely that he’ll be stretched out over the middle. He may wind up just being a decoy.
Having the mere threat of Sanders at least somewhat mitigates the loss of Kittle.
The Pro Bowl tight end was hit in the left leg and suffered knee and ankle injuries on the first series two weeks ago against the Cardinals, before returning to play most of the game and catch six balls for 79 yards in a San Francisco win. He didn’t play in the Monday loss to the Seahawks, and didn’t practice during the week leading up to the game.
Kittle — 12th in the NFL in yards after catch (302 of his 541) — did not practice this week, either, though he was on the field before the game doing stretching and core work, while wearing a shirt that said “Celek Time” with tight end Garrett Celek’s number 88 on the back. That’s a good sign for the future, but it doesn’t help the 49ers on Sunday.
Tevin Coleman will start in place of Breida, Ross Dwelley will start in place of Kittle and rookie Justin Skule will start in place of Staley. In related news, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot sprain) is active for the first time since Week 3. Shanahan said he’d get his starting right corner spot back from Emmanuel Moseley, but Moseley warmed up with the starters before the game.