San Francisco 49ers

49ers notes: Defense dodges disaster with Reuben Foster injury

San Francisco 49ers Reuben Foster reaches for his injured right leg in the first quarter of the NFL season opener between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
San Francisco 49ers Reuben Foster reaches for his injured right leg in the first quarter of the NFL season opener between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Reuben Foster said he’s optimistic he’ll be able to play next week in Seattle and that he even was itching to return to Sunday’s game against the Panthers.

For a few grim moments, it was uncertain whether he’d play at all again in 2017. Foster left the game on a cart in the first quarter after going to the ground awkwardly while tackling Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey. Team doctors initially suspected he injured his knee and he also was tested for a broken bone in his lower leg.

Both exams came back negative and he ultimately was diagnosed with a right ankle injury. Before the first half ended, Foster walked out of the locker room – with a limp and without his helmet – to an ovation from fans. He was on the sideline for the remainder of the game.

“I was surprised by the reaction from the crowd,” Foster said. “The ol’ Niner faithful. I guess they really care about their players. I see that, and it means a lot to me. I’m great.”

Foster dealt with a sprained ankle throughout training camp, although Sunday’s injury appeared to be higher on his right leg.

A long-term injury to Foster would have been near disastrous to a 49ers team that fell 23-3 to Carolina on Sunday and that dealt with a slew of injuries at linebacker a year ago. The rookie was leading the team with three tackles when he was injured and also seemed to have a shot at an interception return for a touchdown on a third-down throw from quarterback Cam Newton.

Something else that underscored Foster’s importance to the defense: When the 49ers switched into their “dime” defense – one that utilizes three safeties – Foster remained on the field while the other inside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, went to the sideline.

Ray-Ray Armstrong entered for Foster at weak-side inside linebacker. He finished with four tackles, but also had at least three missed tackles, including on a third-quarter touchdown by running back Jonathan Stewart.

Foster said there was a little bit of pain – “I was a little scared,” he said – when the injury first occurred. But it diminished as the game went on and he lobbied to go back onto the field.

“It was loosening up,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt (anymore). I’ll be good against Seattle.”

Empty feeling – There were plenty of Levi’s Stadium no-shows for Kyle Shanahan’s debut as 49ers head coach as temperatures topped out at 93 degrees Sunday in Santa Clara. Shanahan, however, said he didn’t notice the empty seats.

“I thought the fans were great,” he said. “They came out early in the game. I thought they were loud. I heard them early. I don’t think we gave them much to cheer for in the second half but definitely can’t blame them for that.”

Rathman honored – The 49ers enshrined former fullback Tom Rathman into their hall of fame Saturday night and then honored him at halftime Sunday.

Rathman also had been a long-time running backs coach for the team whose top protege, Frank Gore, eventually will be considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 49ers replaced Rathman with Bobby Turner in the offseason. Rathman has said he’d sit out this season and look for another job early in 2018.

Et cetera – Rookie Lorenzo Jerome didn’t start at free safety, but he entered the game in the 49ers’ three-safety formations. In so doing, he became the first player from St. Francis University to play in an NFL game since 1952.

* Jerome was one of four undrafted rookies who suited up for the game. The others were receiver Kendrick Bourne, running back Matt Breida and offensive lineman Erik Magnuson. Breida served as Carlos Hyde’s primary backup.

* Shanahan will alter team captains on a weekly basis early in the season. The offensive, defensive and special teams captains for Sunday were: tackle Trent Brown, defensive end Arik Armstead and Dekoda Watson.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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