Kyle Juszczyk’s skills are so unique and he is so valuable to the 49ers’ offense that they do not even bother with the formality of devoting a roster spot to a backup fullback.
The 49ers believe it is a waste of a roster spot to have a backup when no other player could possibly give coach Kyle Shanahan what he wants from that position — the combination of a threat in the passing game and a punishing lead-blocker.
The 49ers received some bad news Tuesday that Juszczyk is expected to miss four to six weeks with a sprain to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
The good news is Juszczyk will not require surgery, nor is he expected to be placed on injured reserve, which would make him ineligible for two months. If the 49ers can keep their heads above water without Juszczyk, he should be healthy and available for the final playoff push and, possibly, the postseason.
The 49ers are 4-0 and lead the NFC West, but have yet to face a division opponent. Their first division matchup comes Sunday at the Los Angeles Rams, who face an early must-win scenario. The Rams (3-2) lost a division game in Week 5 to the Seattle Seahawks. They cannot afford to fall three games behind the 49ers in the loss column.
Shanahan must get creative in ways to compensate for the loss of the player who makes his system unique. Few teams in today’s NFL even deploy a fullback, and no other teams rely on that position to be quite as much of a staple of their offensive systems as the 49ers do.
Juszczyk was on the field for 34 of the team’s 52 offensive snaps before sustaining his knee injury in the 49ers’ 31-3 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Monday at Levi’s Stadium.
By that time, the 49ers have already racked up the bulk of their 275 rushing yards, mostly behind Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman.
“It’s the easiest way to win when you play real good defense and you can run the ball,” Shanahan said. “It takes the pressure off a lot of people and doesn’t put you in a lot of risky situations, but also can help you get some easier explosives, too.”
Through four games, the 49ers have used two backs, pairing Juszczyk and a halfback on 78 of the team’s 113 snaps on first-and-10 situations.
A roster spot does not open with Juszczyk’s absence, so the 49ers may not make a transaction with their 53-man roster to compensate for the loss. Instead, the 49ers are likely to use more personnel groups consisting of one back and two tight ends.
The 49ers are likely to prescribe more playing time for tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo, along with every-down tight end George Kittle. Dwelley is more of a receiving tight end, while Toilolo is a better blocker.
Depending on the matchup, the 49ers could also feature a lot more three-wideout groupings consisting of some combination of Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, Richie James and Kendrick Bourne. Veteran Jordan Matthews is also on the 49ers’ 53-man roster, but he was inactive on Monday against the Browns.
Shanahan is known for his creative offensive designs and his ability to detail game plans that exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. He will be tested in the weeks in which Juszczyk is forced to be a spectator. The 49ers’ offense could come up with something different every week.
Said Shanahan: “We’re going to have a lot of challenges ahead of us.”