There’s no such thing as “next man up” when you lose a wide receiver who has over 1,000 yards in 11 games. Likewise, you don’t replace a linebacker that you just gave a $95 million extension this past offseason.
As is the case with any injury, the Niners hope they can weather the storm for a game or two. Enter, Jauan Jennings and Azeez Al-Shaair.
Jennings played 26 snaps during Sunday’s win over the Vikings, which was only 37% of the snaps. Deebo Samuel, despite missing most of the fourth quarter, played 66% of the snaps. Jennings is your WR2, with Trent Sherfield and Travis Benjamin taking over Jennings’ role.
On Monday, head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked how he planned on filling Samuel’s role while he was out. Shanahan mentioned how George Kittle is getting healthier each week, how Brandon Aiyuk continues to step up, and how Benjamin would get more opportunities with his speed.
I asked Shanahan what’s given him the confidence to call Jennings’ number more and more over the past few weeks. Shanahan said the obvious, Mohamed Sanu’s injury, but also mentioned how the Vikings stopped blitzing after the 49ers picked up a 3rd & 13 with just over seven minutes to play in the first quarter — which is surprising as Minnesota blitzed at the 11th-highest rate this season.
He said when you don’t blitz as a defense, it’s easier to take away Kittle, Deebo, and Aiyuk, opening the door for a player like Jennings. Jennings had two red-zone targets, and he also caught a critical first down that came over the middle for 21 yards.
Here’s Kyle’s full answer:
“Yeah. He’s getting his number called more because he got an opportunity when [WR Mohamed] Sanu [Sr.] got hurt. So that’s made him out there a lot more and you call certain play, you get certain coverages and then that game after we hit that third-and-13, they didn’t blitz the rest of the game on third down. And when you don’t blitz, it’s a lot easier to cover Kittle and Deebo out over the middle. And a number of those, twice in particular, two of the ones you mentioned, lead to Jauan getting it on the outside. You don’t just call it saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to Jauan.’ You call it to put guys in the right spot. And then you have to see what defense they’re playing. But we’ve believed in Jauan, we’ve been hoping he would come on and string some more weeks together where he’d stay healthy and get more consistent. And I think that’s really been picking up here this last month in, he’s definitely taken advantage of his opportunity.”
The more opportunities Jennings has gotten, the more confidence he’s played with. He doesn’t have the same speed as the other playmakers on offense, so his usage will be different. Still, he’s a big-bodied target that should have no issues against a porous Seahawks secondary.
On the other side of the ball, Al-Shaair is far from a part-time player. He’s been filling in for Dre Greenlaw since Week 1. Azeez played 87% of the snaps Sunday and continued to start over Greenlaw.
With Warner out, Al-Shaair takes over as the MIKE linebacker. Here’s what Shanahan said about Azeez having to deal with the added responsibility of relaying the play-call to the rest of the defense:
“We’ll see how he does at it this week. You don’t do it right away in the game, but Azeez has been ready for anything we’ve asked him to. And I think you guys can tell. He always runs around and plays like his hair is on fire and that he loves playing the football game, but that’s not changing. But he’s just getting more and more confident of where to be, what to anticipate and he’s just playing at a real high level right now. And that’s why he got his hand on the ball twice, one with the pick, which was an awesome job keying that quarterback. And then just being around after [DL] Kevin [Givens] got that strip. Azeez, he’s been playing at a high-level all year, whether he’s inside or outside. I expect it to continue. We needed it to continue because it’s one of the reasons why we’re playing pretty good right now.”
On Sunday, Shanahan said Al-Shaair has been “one of our better players,” and he didn’t limit that to defense.
We’ll discuss this more as the week goes along, but timely stops and turnovers are how the 49ers get off the field. Of course, you lose playmaking ability with Warner out, but we haven’t seen him be the turnover machine that made him the highest-paid linebacker at the time of Warner’s extension this season.
Al-Shaair as morphed into a playmaker. On Sunday, and perhaps the next two Sundays, the 49ers will need Azeez to continue to play “like his hair is on fire.”