It was heartbreaking to see San Francisco’s Cinderella story in 2011 come to a premature end in the NFC title game. At 13-3, the 49ers were one of the most dominant teams in the league, but due to personnel issues, they could not finish strong.
The Niners find themselves in a disconcerting position once again, heading into the playoffs with several critical injuries on offense. Kendall Hunter, Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham were all lost for the season with no chance of return.
Luckily, LaMichael James has stepped up behind Frank Gore, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Together, James and Gore could carry the rock 40-plus times in a game if need be, so the running game is less of a concern.
But with two wide outs going down, including a starter in Manningham, rookie A.J. Jenkins has to answer the call. The team’s first-rounder has not played much during this season, having only been active for three games.
His first career target – a softball on third-down from Colin Kaepernick – was a dropped pass.
Toward the end of the season, Jenkins was active for Miami, New England and the season finale against Arizona. He did not record a single catch in his rookie debut; granted, he was only activated after injuries depleted the 49ers receiving corps.
But based on the modern expectations of a first-round rookie, Jenkins should be able to competently fill in as a No. 3 WR. With Michael Crabtree and only a moderately contributing Randy Moss, San Francisco needs more help from their wide receivers.
Jenkins has lined up in the slot as the #3 behind Crabtree and Moss, and also at flanker. When the postseason officially gets underway for the Niners, they need to be able to depend on him, even though he is still without a catch in the NFL.
The coaches need to make it a point to build his confidence. Jenkins made some high-focus grabs in the preseason that showed flashes of what originally made him a first round selection. The 49ers need to call his number, getting him the ball on bubble screens, high-percentage timing routes or other.
Heading into the divisional round catch-less, some have questioned whether this will hurt the Niners in the postseason. Whether or not the 49ers can get contributions from their receiver depth could once again be a deciding factor for them in the playoffs.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had some thoughts on the matter:
"Do I think he can? Yes. Will we need him to? Yes. We need him to step up and we definitely think he’s capable of doing that,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh has continued to support Jenkins, though he is yet to show what he can do at this level. Jenkins needs to dial in to the offense in a hurry. When the 49ers next game rolls around, it will be a "win or go home" scenario.
Q: What can you say about A.J. Jenkins going into January? It’s time to step up.
Yeah. He’s got the license and the ability to do that. We’ll expect that, because we’ve seen that he has the ability to do that in practice. Had an opportunity to make a catch the other day and there will be more opportunities for him. You learn from the playing time that he’s had. We’ll coach him up, we’ll expect it and we’ll believe in A.J…Looking forward to his next opportunity.