By Jerrell Richardson
Few teams rely on their fullback like San Francisco. Bruce Miller, the 49ers fullback, has played an integral part in the team’s success this year, and the news that he is out for the rest of the year – and most likely the playoffs – is not good. Miller has not only been responsible for clearing running room for Frank Gore and the other running backs, but he has also been asked to help out in the passing game with protection and is the team’s third leading receiver. However, the 49ers should not only be able to survive this latest setback, but could even be more explosive as a result.
Best Fullback in the NFL
How big of a role has Miller played in the San Francisco offense this season? The converted defensive end has been on the field for 60 percent of the 49ers snaps this season, which is the highest percentage among fullbacks. He also leads his fellow fullbacks in receptions and yards, all while being the lead blocker for one of the best running teams in the NFL. Miller was a Pro Bowl alternate a year ago, and figured to be a shoe-in this year. So while there is no getting around the fact that his presence will be missed, the team has several suitable directions to go in to make up for their recent loss.
Game Plan No Longer Restricted By Injuries
The reason that Miller had been relied on so heavily has been due to injuries decimating the passing game. When the season started, San Francisco was without two offensive pieces in wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, and Colin Kaepernick struggled. To address their problems, the offense focused more on the run and gave Kaepernick a safety valve on passing plays – two moves that made Bruce Miller invaluable. While this shift in the offense may have saved the season early on, the team is now in a position health-wise to go back to a more explosive and unpredictable game plan.
For most of the season, injuries have dictated San Francisco’s play calling. The team has relied on their “21” personnel group, which includes two backs, two receivers and a tight end, but are no longer handcuffed. First, the team got back Manningham and Crabtree, thus doubling the threats on the field, allowing the team to employ three or even four receiver formations. And with the recent returns of tight ends Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald, the team can also run the two tight end sets that were so popular last year. The 49ers are still going to have to run the ball though, so the search for a replacement has already begun.
Anthony Dixon Could Get His Wish
As of now, the 49ers are unsure of who will step in at the fullback position. The plan for now is to bring back Owen Marecic, who was released by the team earlier this year and played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, but the best option is already on the team. Anthony Dixon, who stepped in last week after Miller’s injury is already listed as the team’s backup fullback and been begging for more playing time. Dixon has the physicality to play the position and would be an upgrade to Miller in short yardage runs, or coming out of the backfield to catch the ball. The only real concern in replacing Miller with Dixon will be in blocking situations, where even if Dixon can’t get it done, they can turn to a bevy of other players to help out. This includes two backups, linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who saw some action at fullback this preseason, and offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore.
Miller Injury Does Not Spell Doom
For a team eyeing a run at the Super Bowl, the news of an injury to a starter is not what the 49ers needed. The good news is that the 49ers have the players to fill Miller’s multi-talented shoes, and this injury is not devastating. Keep in mind that the heavy reliance on Miller earlier this year was just as much a necessity as anything else. Dixon is already familiar with the offense and the other players who will get some playing time due to Millers absence will have little to do other than block. Luckily the team has two more games before the playoffs begin to try and figure out who exactly is the most effective in given situations. As they ramp up for the playoffs, the 49ers would prefer no injury concerns, but despite losing a starter for the rest of this year, this particular injury does not figure to derail the 49ers postseason goals.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.