It was hard to tell because of the red-on-black uniform numbers, but the 49ers pass catcher sent sprawling onto his back by a Vikings safety on an incomplete pass at the goal line Monday was tight end Garrett Celek.
“I kind of laid there and did a full systems check to make sure everything was A-OK,” Celek said of the hit by Andrew Sendejo. “But I’m good. Jumped up and ran to the sideline.”
A total-body review was understandable after Celek, 27, missed most of the 2014 season with a bulging disc that was pinching a nerve in his leg and hindering his ability to run. He had surgery a year ago, played in only three games and finished the season with two catches.
He’s already surpassed that total.
Celek had three catches for 40 yards in the 49ers’ 20-3 win over Minnesota, finishing behind fellow tight end Vernon Davis – three catches for 47 yards – for team-high receiving yards. The game not only underscored the difference in Celek’s seasons but also how the 49ers are using tight ends this year.
They began Monday’s game with three tight ends and just one wide receiver, Anquan Boldin. That set the tone for a physical and decidedly run-heavy game plan. The 49ers had 230 rushing yards and lead the league after Week 1.
But when quarterback Colin Kaepernick put the ball in the air, tight ends were a factor. He targeted them on 11 passes, the same number of passes thrown to the team’s wideouts.
“I think it’s harder for defenses to scheme,” Celek said. “They don’t know whether (we’ll) run it or whether we’re going to pass it. I think we have very viable options there.”
The coaches decided early in the offseason that tight end was a team strength. They had eight on the roster when training camp began and kept four – Davis, Celek, Vance McDonald and rookie Blake Bell – on the 53-man squad. A fifth, rookie Busta Anderson, is on injured reserve.
Last season, the tight ends were frequently injured and coaches determined the strength was at wide receiver. That led to game plans full of three-, four-, even five-receiver formations that sometimes led to impressive statistics but rarely led to victories.
According to the scouting service Pro Football Focus, the 49ers used a three-tight end formation 34 times during Monday’s game. They used that package 10 times all of last season.
Celek is perhaps the surprise member of the 49ers’ tight end quartet.
Not only was he injured most of last season, the 49ers used him mostly as a short-yardage blocker in previous years. He needs just one more reception to tie his career-high four catches in 2012, his rookie season.
Celek played 51 snaps against the Vikings, second most for a tight end behind Davis’ 72.
“I think I’m just playing better this year,” Celek said. “So I think that’s part of it. And I’m healthy. That’s a big thing.”