Picking Up The Slack: Bruce Miller's Replacements
The 49ers have shown us that they are a completely different team without a few of their offensive weapons, namely Michael Crabtree for the first 12 games and Vernon Davis for parts of three games. Davis is an elite blocker and big play-making machine, while Crabtree is a quarterback’s best friend, reeling in nearly every ball thrown to him while serving as a dynamic after-the-catch weapon.
And very few teams rely on a fullback as much as the Niners do: Bruce Miller is fourth on the team in snaps among offensive skill players, behind Anquan Boldin, Frank Gore and Davis. Of course, Miller’s broken shoulder blade will keep him out for the season. So, how does San Francisco replace a player whose versatility can't be found anywhere else on the team? They’ll just have to get more creative.
The 49ers lap the field in their use of 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends), using the formation on 28.3 percent of their plays. The NFL average is 4.8 percent. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s love of two tight end sets would lead me to believe that the Niners will go to 12 personnel a little more.
Unlike 22, San Francisco lines up in 12 personnel seven percent less than the NFL average. While it may just mean lining up Vernon Davis or Vance McDonald, or even third-stringer Garrett Celek, in the backfield to recreate the looks they were getting with Miller that could be the case. Miller was reinventing the role of former backup tight end Delanie Walker.
The Niners will likely fill Miller’s snaps with a rotation. In the three weeks since Crabtree has returned to the lineup, Mario Manningham’s snaps have gone from 45, 27, 33 in his first few weeks to 17, 16, 15 since Crabtree’s return. The 49ers use three-receiver sets very rarely, especially compared to the NFL average. While the average team will use 11 personnel on every other play, Roman will only break it out once every five plays. That speaks to how little the 49ers are usually trailing, but it’s also evident that Miller was a big part of what they were trying to do. Having said that, Manningham and rookie Quinton Patton should see a bump in snaps as the Niners attempt to find a formation they like to use.
One of Miller’s most important roles was to be the lead blocker for Frank Gore. According to ProFootballFocus, Miller had graded out as a top-4 run blocker among fullbacks, so the Niners are clearly going to miss his presence in the run game. Core special teams player and late game clock-killer Anthony Dixon may not have the short, powerful body of Miller but he isn't afraid to lay the wood. Dixon has always been a below-average running back, but as a lead blocker he won’t be asked to run with the ball.
Another candidate for some time at fullback is Derek Carrier. An undrafted free agent in 2012, Carrier has seen just 42 snaps at tight end this season when McDonald and Celek were out with injuries. Although he’s still raw, Carrier likely represents the closest thing to a H-back type of role outside of maybe Vance McDonald. Carrier has played the majority of his snaps at tight end, but is a versatile body. At the time of his injury, Miller was the 49ers’ third-leading receiver. If Harbaugh and Roman decide to go with a rotation at fullback, we could see Dixon and someone like Carrier in on back-to-back plays.
Not to be forgotten is defenive lineman/fullback Will Tukuafu. The former Oregon Duck played 136 snaps for the 49ers last season, with 92 coming at fullback — and 44 on the defensive line. Billed as just a fullback on the press release when he was signed this past week, the 49ers are desperate to add another body to the fray. Tukuafu will likely serve as depth for the time being, but could see a role in the playoffs if the Niners do decide to go that way. Seventy-three of his 92 offensive snaps last season came on running plays, so Tukuafu’s job, if he ever sees the field, would be as a short-yardage lead blocker.
As significant as the injury is, Miller wasn't going to be the do-or-die factor in a playoff run. He was a brick in the wall, but with Colin Kaepernick being able to lean on Crabtree, Boldin and Davis in the passing game, Miller’s role was lessened. While he’ll be missed in the run game, the offensive line is set to welcome Mike Iupati back, which should be a jolt to Gore’s prospects.A
As long as the Niners can find a capable lead blocker, they should continue to stay the course as the season wraps up its final two weeks.