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Juice Check, Week 4: A small silver lining in 49ers-Chiefs

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In a dismal week, the fullback went full Offensive Weapon

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Jimmy Garoppolo is out for the year, joining RB Jerick McKinnon, and all is gloom among the 49ers faithful. However, one pillar of Kyle Shanahan’s scheme stood tall Sunday.

Kyle Juszczyk showed the full range of his value, from catching the team’s only first half touchdown to steady work behind the running game — which will be all the more important with C.J. Beathard in at QB. Say what you will about his passing and ability to read defenses, but Beathard’s hand-offs are not a big drop from Garoppolo’s.

Juice’s role in this offense has increased every game this year. He was in for fully 53 of 68 offensive plays Sunday, plus his usual role on punt coverage. Part of that reflects Kyle Shanahan’s surprising — and surprisingly successful — strategy of coming back from a big deficit with long, grinding run-based drives.

Juice showed his value in the running game over and over, with a combination of lead blocks out of I-formation and occasional backside “wham” blocks to keep defenses guessing.

During the final fourth quarter drive, for example, the Niners had the ball at the fifty yard line, first and ten. Juszczyk drove linebacker Reggie Ragland back five yards and pancaked him, clearing the way for Matt Breida to pick up five yards.

And earlier, at 5:15 of the 3rd, he cleared out DB Kendall Fuller two yards past the line of scrimmage, then ran downfield and pushed the pile forward, finishing off a 16-yard gain for Alfred Morris.

He was also valuable in pass protection on eight plays, holding off some pretty intense bull rushes and free runners. But what everyone will remember about this game were Juszczyk’s marquee offensive touches. He had two highlight plays on NFL.com, and for the second time this year in three games, the longest reception by the 49ers at 35 yards.

During a dismal first half when the 49ers could not sustain a drive, Juice broke the ice by sneaking out on a drag route that broke downfield. It completely fooled the Chiefs, leaving him wide open for a deep pass. Garoppolo’s pass was no where near hitting him in stride, but the fullback was able to flip around, haul it in and outrace a safety to the end zone. His soft hands are an underrated part of his skill set.

At the end of the game, Juszczyk executed a nifty run option play, taking the handoff from Garoppolo, running toward the slot, and masterfully pitching to Matt Breida at the last second for a 13-yard gain inside the red zone.

Again, it’s not only that he could do the play, but that he did it so well. Often, on “trick” plays like this, you see the rarely-used back look uncertain and, as often or not, bobble or even fumble the ball. Juice looked like he had been a triple option QB in college, and I have no doubt that if a defender had not filled the slot, he would have run it in himself.

In fact, Juszczyk is currently the emergency QB for the Niners (now that Jerick McKinnon is out injured). As Matt Maiocco recently noted, he was the emergency QB at Baltimore too, played some quarterback in high school, and ran Wildcat plays as a tight end at Harvard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him taking some more reps in practice, and throwing a pass in a game later this year.

To be fair, Juszczyk was called for the OPI penality on the Niners’ last offensive play, nullifying Beathard’s TD pass, but there was widespread agreement — including by Fox analysts — that the call was crap.

And these highlight plays don’t even cover the extent of Juice’s contributions on passing. He drew an 18-yard DPI penalty on a wheel route against KC’s dime backer, Anthony Hitchens, at 2:20 of the first quarter.

And exactly one quarter later, at 2:20 of the second, Juszczyk (blue circle) was wide open for a solid gain, but Jimmy Garoppolo inexplicably chose to target Pierre Garçon (red circle) who was quadruple-teamed.

It’s hard to be optimistic about this season, but if nothing else, Kyle Shanahan is finding more and more ways to make use of Juice, and that part of his offense should be fully developed for some future date when other key skill players are healthy.