The 49ers offense suffered a big blow during it's 33-14 victory last Sunday against Tampa Bay when starting fullback Bruce Miller was lost for the season with a fractured scapula. Miller had been playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2013 and was heavily involved in the offense participating in 59% of the snaps. In addition to being the fullback, Miller had also taken on much of the Swiss Army Knife role that had been filled previously by Delanie Walker.
Replacing Miller will not be a one man job. Let's take a look at how the 49ers coaching staff probably will and won't fill the role left open by Miller's injury.
1) Anthony Dixon - While Dixon has primarily been a halfback, the 49ers have worked to transition him into the role of backup fullback since 2012. During the 2013 preseason over 40% of his snaps came from the fullback spot. While Miller finished the preseason with a PFF run blocking grade of -1.5, Dixon wasn't off by much while finishing with a -2.5.
I went back and watched the snaps at the end of the Tampa Bay game after Miller went out and the block by Dixon on his first snap jumped off the screen. The 49ers ran their bread and butter Power O to the left side and Dixon not only made his block on the outside linebacker he absolutely blew him up, getting leverage and finishing his block with his man on his back.
Miller has proven to be a viable threat in the passing game this season in addition to his blocking. This is something that I believe we will see Dixon excel at as well. Dixon is a bit faster than Miller and should be able to turn those short flat routes that the 49ers like to run into bigger gains.
2) Increased role for the backup TE's - While their is no good time to lose your starting fullback, the 49ers seem to have begun setting themselves up for this over the last few weeks. Here's what I mean, over the course of the season the 49ers have run the ball out of 12 personnel (1RB/2TE) only 45 times. The interesting thing that I found while looking back at my game charts is that 17 of those have come over the last 3 weeks and they have resulted in an average gain of 4.5 yards.
Another thing that jumped out at me as I looked at the film of their last 3 games recently was that they have utilized both Derek Carrier and Vance McDonald from the backfield a few times. Look for this to increase moving forward.
3) Will Tukuafu - On Wednesday the 49ers brought back the former defensive lineman turned fullback. Tukuafu, who will fill the backup fullback role, played 92 snaps in that role for the 49ers in 2012 and was given a run block grade of +5.5 by PFF. The one limitation with Tukuafu is in the passing game, as he was not targeted at all on those 92 snaps. The 49ers need to be careful not to telegraph the play should he be utilized.
4) Anquan Boldin - This one might seem a bit strange but let me explain. When Boldin was at Florida State he played a bit of everything and we have seen the 49ers do a bit of that with him this season. One example came last week against Tampa Bay. On the first play after Miller went out, they put Boldin in the backfield with LaMichael James, and gave him the ball on a play that could have been a touchdown had Adam Snyder been able to make his block.
1) Increased use of 3 wide receiver sets - While many pundits have brought this up, I find it highly unlikely. The reason I say that is the 49ers have run the ball only 28 times all season with 3 receivers on the field, and on those plays they have gained an average of only 2.1 yards.
While the loss of Miller is big the 49ers coaching staff should be able to manage the team through it. Remember, this is a team that went through the first 10 weeks of the season with basically only 1 wide receiver.