The unbeaten 49ers are expecting a trio of offensive starters back from injury for Monday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.
However, San Francisco could be without three other key players, creating a new set of challenges as the team looks to extend its record to 9-0.
The returning players include two of their best offensive linemen, tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, and their Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The players expected to be shuffled out of the lineup are tight end George Kittle (knee/ankle), linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral) and kicker Robbie Gould (quadriceps).
Kittle on Saturday was officially tabbed “doubtful” to play, but coach Kyle Shanahan is keeping the door open, given Kittle’s high pain tolerance.
“Just because it’s George,” Shanahan said. “If it was any other player, I would probably say he’s out. If it goes like this, he will be out.”
Kittle is undoubtedly the team’s best player on offense. His blocking is crucial to the league’s second-best running game and he’s been the team’s top pass catcher on pace for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. He’s been paramount to the team’s success on third down, catching 19 of 20 targets from Jimmy Garoppolo for 14 conversions as the team ranks second in the league in conversion rate (49 percent).
Even without Kittle, the team believes it has the players and versatility on offense to make up for his absence. Reserve Ross Dwelley made the game-sealing third-down conversion in the Halloween win over the Arizona Cardinals while playing a career-high 49 snaps played.
“Ross has proven it the last couple weeks,” McGlinchey said. “But we’ve known Ross is a player since he got here. He’s one of the best true pass catchers on our team. He’s gritty as all hell, he does whatever the coaches tell him to do.”
The 49ers know they won’t have Alexander, who had season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn pectoral. Alexander was San Francisco’s second-leading tackler and he’s one of its two defenders with a forced fumble and interception, joining rookie Nick Bosa.
Asked about what the team will miss without Alexander, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, “His energy, his juice, obviously his play-making ability. There’s going to be a lot to miss, but we’ve got tremendous faith in Dre Greenlaw and the guys that are going to step up in his place.”
Greenlaw, a fifth-round draft pick, played more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps in three games this season, including 81 percent Week 1 when Alexander was ejected in the first quarter for an illegal hit on Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.
“He had a good week of practice,” Shanahan said. “It was nice to get a bunch more reps for him, especially in the nickel situations. I’m not worried about Greenlaw, excited to see him play.”
Greenlaw is a much more quiet and reserved player than Alexander, leader of the “Hot Boyzz” linebacking corps. The Arkansas alum said he doesn’t want to overstep his bounds and he expects Alexander’s leadership responsibilities get picked up by some of the team’s other veterans, such as Richard Sherman, DeForest Buckner and Fred Warner.
The 2019 fifth-round pick does have leadership experience stemming from college. He was a team captain for the Razorbacks and a four-year starter in the competitive SEC.
“I just feel like as a football player, you don’t need somebody to go out there yelling to get you going. You’re either ready or you’re not,” Greenlaw said. “I’m sure some of these other guys are going to step up, be more of a vocal leader. We got plenty of captains around here, so we’ll take that.”
Gould missed all three practices this week after straining his quad during Tuesday’s bonus practice following the weekend off due to the Thursday game. Shanahan said he’s optimistic Gould’s absence won’t last longer than a week. The team signed former Los Angeles Chargers rookie Chase McClaughlin, who made 6 of 9 field-goal attempts and all seven extra points this season.
The 49ers haven’t had the best injury luck this season. They stemmed the tide by going undefeated despite missing both their starting tackles for the past four games – and Staley since mid-September. Getting Juszczyk back is key with Kittle likely sidelined. Juszczyk’s run blocking is nearly as a important as Kittle’s and he has the athleticism to pose problems for linebackers in pass coverage.
“Hopefully we can get back to full strength here first because it seems like as soon as some of us get healthy, we lose another guy,” McGlinchey said.