The 49ers played their season opener with an injury-ravaged receiver corps. They’ll match up against the New York Jets on Sunday with similar issues at cornerback.
This isn’t about operating with a depleted depth chart while three-down starters remain at full strength. The 49ers are also dealing with injuries at the highest levels.
Cornerback Richard Sherman was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a calf issue. Receiver Deebo Samuel is already there after a setback rehabbing after foot surgery.
Tight end George Kittle is on the active roster but also on the injury report with a knee injury. If he were to miss the Jets game, the 49ers would play without three of their top six or seven players regardless of position.
Replacing quality is tough when the 49ers also have a quantity problem. Ahkello Witherspoon’s in the concussion protocol. Jason Verrett’s dealing with a lingering hamstring strain. The cornerbacks, in short, are sapped.
Receiver Richie James also is down with a hamstring injury, though first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk will reinforce a downtrodden receiver group ineffectual in the Week 1 Arizona Cardinals loss. Mohamed Sanu also signed up this week and may play Sunday despite not being able to practice until Friday due to COVID-19 testing.
That’s an example of just how desperate the 49ers are to improve the passing game and their defense against it. While all teams deal with injuries, such volume and talent loss has provided the 49ers the first real test of their NFC title defense.
“It's a challenge, but you always have something like this each year,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It's hitting us pretty hard right now.”
This upcoming stretch, without Sherman and Samuel especially, will be harder than expected.
We’ll learn something about these 49ers by how they work through it. It’s also proof that, no matter how well the salary cap, NFL draft and veteran personnel decisions are managed, sustaining success is hard.
The 49ers didn’t sail on the calm throughout 2019, but an 8-0 start established room to breathe easy. That allowed them to handle the inevitable injury issues well. It gave them the confidence to own the fourth quarter as they did so many times. And they relied upon had an elite run scheme and pass rush when things got tough.
They can do that again over a relatively easy stretch against the Jets, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins. Those are four straight wins on paper, even without sidelined stars.
If the 49ers can score early, their true strengths can hold leads and secure wins. If the pass rush gets rolling against a series of pocket passers –- at least three straight, possibly four if Tua Tagovialoa remains on Miami’s bench -– the run game does its thing, the 49ers will be fine.
They could come out of it stronger, with Sanu and relative newcomer Jordan Reed forced to acclimate and contribute quickly. It’s always tough to expect huge things from a rookie receiver, but Aiyuk’s training camp suggested an instant impact is possible.
Confidence, in times like this, will be the bedrock of offensive production.
“We've dealt with this before. I think every team, you’ve got to deal with your injuries,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “It’s that next-man-up mindset, but in the past, you’ve got to rely on the guys that you can trust. They earn that in practice. You earn that vice versa, but I think it's really just about getting the guys out there you feel confident in, who you know what they're going to do, and who will do it on Sunday.”
Sherman has produced on Sundays for a long time now. His loss, for at least three weeks under the NFL’s modified 2020 rules on short-term injured reserve, hurts the worst. His on-field leadership will be missed but losing consistently excellent coverage will be a bigger setback.
Good teams weather these injury issues at or above .500 and then strike hard when closer to full strength. The 49ers should be able to function well against lackluster competition, using a soft spot in the schedule to rebound from key early injuries. If they can avoid others in the coming weeks, the 49ers could actually have positive momentum heading towards midseason.
“There’s a bit of adversity, but this team has been through tons of adversity since I have been here,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “It’s nothing new. We just have to find a way to get the job done.”