SANTA CLARA – In the split-second it took for running back Jerick McKinnon to plant his right foot on a routine practice play and fall awkwardly to the ground, a lot of the 49ers’ plans changed for the upcoming season.
“We all know we have to pick it up because our goal is we want to get to a Super Bowl, eventually,” 49ers running back Matt Breida said. “And we got to take our first step this year. Our first goal is to get to the playoffs. We all feel like we have to step it up.”
McKinnon on Monday was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his right knee. Whereas he was signed to a lucrative free-agent contract to be Jimmy Garoppolo’s most versatile offensive weapon, the 49ers are likely to view their offensive approach a bit differently now.
Veteran Alfred Morris earned a roster spot as insurance after second-year players Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols failed to impress coach Kyle Shanahan and the organization. Morris will be paired with Breida to share the duties in the backfield as McKinnon spends the season rehabbing to be at full strength for 2019.
McKinnon said he is optimistic Morris and Breida can accomplish good things in tandem.
“I think they work really well together,” McKinnon said. “They’re two different backs. And they both have a lot of upside. Coach Shanahan and the rest of the coaches do a good job of putting us in position to be successful.”
Morris and Breida are a contrasts in styles and experience.
Morris, 29, enters his seventh NFL season. He entered the NFL in 2012 with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator in Washington. A tough inside runner, Morris gained nearly 2,900 yards and 20 touchdowns with Shanahan in two seasons.
Breida, 23, made the 49ers’ roster as an undrafted rookie. He appeared in all 16 games last season and averaged 4.4 yards a carry while catching 21 passes. Breida appears capable of providing more big plays for the 49ers’ offense.
“Matt’s obviously faster than Alfred,” McKinnon said. “Alfred’s been in this scheme before. Alfred’s been to the Pro Bowl in this scheme. When I see him run, I can see why he’s so successful, because he makes a lot of the right cuts and smart moves and puts the ball where it needs to be placed.
“I think he’s going to help Matt come along. It’s only going to make them both better. When you got two backs, iron sharpens iron.”
Morris, who signed with the 49ers just three weeks ago, has never seen Breida play because Breida just returned to practice this week from a separated shoulder. But Morris has used him as a resource as he adjusts back to Shanahan’s offensive system. Morris said Breida and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are the two players he leans on for knowledge about the offense.
“He’s definitely a change-of-pace type of guy,” Morris said of Breida. “I think he can carry the load if he had to. It would be a different role for him. But I think mentally he has the capacity to do that.”
Said Breida, “Alfred has been in this offense before. He’s asking me questions, but I’m asking him questions, too.”
Ultimately, the big question is how Shanahan will deploy Morris and Breida. It could be a weekly adjustment, as Shanahan looks for the right matchups against a given opponent, beginning Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Right now, neither Morris nor Breida knows exactly what to expect.
“We’ll see how they use us, if it’s a one-two thing or we kind of spell each other,” Morris said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. We’ll just see. We’ll figure it out this week and go from there.”