It hardly seemed possible, but the 49ers left Sunday’s game with even more key players hobbled with health concerns.
During the 29-27 defeat to the Chargers, San Francisco lost Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley and receiver Dante Pettis to knee injuries. Last week, the team lost franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending ACL tear, and a month ago lost top running back Jerick McKinnon to the same injury.
The good news: The injuries don’t appear to be ACL tears, based on preliminary testing, a team spokesman said. The 49ers were also forced to deal with knee injuries to rookie first-round pick Mike McGlinchey and prized free-agent addition Weston Richburg along the offensive line, though both players returned to the game noticeably hindered.
Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and running back Matt Breida also exited momentarily with second-half shoulder injuries before making eventual returns.
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All that piled on top of the other injuries. They entered the game without the team’s top quarterback, running back, cornerback (Richard Sherman, calf) and strong safety (Jaquiski Tartt, shoulder).
“I’m not God, so I don’t know why injuries happen but they have been legit injuries,” an exasperated Kyle Shanahan said afterward. “I think we have tough guys who try as hard as they can to play when they are hurt. It’s tough when you’re injured and you just can’t go.”
Staley’s injury came when his right leg was rolled up while quarterback C.J. Beathard was slammed to the turf making a third-down conversion to George Kittle at the 9-minute mark in the second quarter. Staley was wearing a brace on his right leg after the game, had a noticeable limp and declined to speak to reporters. He’s expected to undergo an MRI Monday morning.
Staley’s absence loomed large throughout the game. Beathard was under siege in the second half, but managed to escape a number of sacks. But Staley’s absence affected perhaps the biggest play of the game, when safety Derwin James sealed the victory by blitzing off the left edge, against Staley’s backup Garry Gilliam. He hit Beathard as he threw, forcing the interception to defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.
McGlinchey left the game in the second quarter and didn’t return until the third, forcing guard Erik Magnuson to play right tackle. The 49ers struggled at the midway point of the game, allowing the Chargers to score 20 straight points after jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Pettis, who had been dealing with a knee injury in recent weeks, went to the locker room after getting tackled on a first-quarter punt return. Marquise Goodwin also missed time during the game with a hamstring injury, forcing Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor to to switch to the “X” receiver role. Bourne logged his second touchdown catch of the season in the first quarter.
Reed makes first start – The 49ers made a big change at the back end of the secondary, inserting rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Reed at free safety over incumbent starter Adrian Colbert, who left last week’s loss in Kansas City with a hip injury.
San Francisco limited Philip Rivers to 250 yards on 39 throws (a paltry 6.1 yards per attempt) and Reed was credited with two tackles in his debut.
“Colbert didn’t practice much throughout the week,” Shanahan said. “... And had to take some of his reps off, which he didn’t get many of at all. We wanted to go with the healthier guy.”
Colbert, of course, assumed the starting role in 2017 after injuries forced former 49er Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward out of the lineup. So it’s not out of the question that Reed keeps the starting role.
Rotation of cornerbacks – The 49ers mixed and matched at cornerback with Sherman sidelined. They began with Ward and Ahkello Witherspoon, later mixed in Greg Mabin, who subbed for both players during portions of the second half.
“We had a plan to put Mabin in going in,” Shanahan said. “It was more about Mabin and how he has been practicing the last couple of weeks. He had a great week of practice and we thought he deserved it.”
Mabin played well under the circumstances. He nearly made a game-changing play when he forced a fumble from Melvin Gordon III in the third quarter near the goal line. The 49ers appeared to make the recovery, but Malcolm Smith and Reed were ruled out of bounds after review. The Chargers wound up kicking a crucial field goal en route to their two-point victory.