When injuries mount, football guys say “Next Man Up.” For San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the Arizona Cardinals game was more like “Last Man Standing.” Besides Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending injuries, Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis were injured-inactive, Matt Breida had to leave after 13 snaps, and backup RB Raheem Mostert came down with a bad case of fumbleitis.
That skill-player-deprived offense then had to play 98 snaps, the most for any NFL team in five years, due to the deadly combination of a strong running game and five turnovers. It was an offensive treadmill that never lead anywhere, like one of those dreams where you run and run forever and never get away from the monster (who is Chandler Jones, in this case).
The result was a huge game for Juice, who played 68 snaps — a whole game’s worth most weeks, but only 70% of the Niner’s offensive marathon this time. He was targeted seven times, catching six for 75 yards, and even had an ultra-rare run for 12 yards. To top it all off, he shed a blocker and tackled Tre Boston after that safety intercepted a pass.
He’ll be at least as needed Monday night against Green Bay, since four key skill players missed practice Friday due to injury: Matt Brieda, Pierre Garçon, Dante Pettis, and Trent Taylor (plus McKinnon of course). Star TE Kittle and 3/5 of the offensive line were limited in practice. At this rate, Juszczyk will be the leading receiver AND rusher.
To be fair, the versatile FB was clearly a big part of Kyle Shanahan’s screen-heavy opening script, long before the in-game injuries and turnovers changed the tenor of the game. Twice on the first drive, he made an initial feint at a pass protection block, then turned around for a screen — and a big gain. The first play gained 16 yards.
Better yet, Shanahan came right back 3 plays later with the exact same play — for 26 yards down to the two-yard line.
I’m always amazed at how Shanahan finds a way in every single game to show formations not previously seen during the season. Last Sunday, Juszczyk generally lined up alongside the QB, not behind the tackle as before but in between the tackle and guard, on either side. He also ran a couple of plays where the FB lined up on the right wing or wide right, and then motioned back into I-formation. That’s a new one.
Let’s not forget the excellent blocking job that Juszczyk continues to do in the running game. He’s a key reason for these long runs that Breida keeps breaking off, as Juice excels in getting to the second level defender, and Breida has excellent timing to hit the hole his FB just created at the perfect time. A lot of RBs do that on the line — that’s their job — but Juice and Breida are great at doing it a bit further downfield or running outside.
On Breida’s first big run, a 17-yard pickup, watch how Juszczyk submarines defensive end Chandler Jones (55) keeping the speedy running back inches away from the DE’s grasp.
With the offensive line starting to show run-game dominance, the fullback running a little and Breida working on his receiving, it’s tempting to dream of a healthy Niners squad running a 3-back formation with, say, McKinnon, Breida and Juszczyk — any of whom could run or go deep.
Does a defense stay in base, leaving potentially 3 linebackers covering these potential receivers? Or go nickel, and face two explosive runners with a lead fullback? That’s a tough choice. I’d love to see them have to make it.