Sopoaga has anchored Niners' dominant front wall
The 49ers have another dreaded staph infection scare with the news that nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has contracted such an infection. The 49ers are mum on injuries, so no one's sure the extent of the situation, but Sopoaga was listed as doubtful on Friday’s official injury report and is not expected to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday’s battle of first-place teams at Candlestick Park.
Staph infections can be quite minor, particularly when caught early. However even when they don't spread, they can have an enervating effect.
Wide receiver Joshua Morgan came down with a staph infection in his rookie season of 2008. He supposedly got it from the infield dirt during a preseason game against the Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum.
Morgan said at the time that he dropped 15 pounds. While he didn't miss any games, Morgan, after a brilliant training camp that saw him break into San Francisco’s starting lineup, caught three passes in his first four games and only 20 overall.
Coach Jim Harbaugh revealed no details of Sopoaga’s situation during his news conference Friday afternoon. When asked if the 49ers have had to isolate Sopoaga from the rest of the team this week because of his infection, Harbaugh responded as he usually does when health issues are broached.
“We don’t really talk about what we do protocol-wise,” Harbaugh said. “He’s working through something.”
Harbaugh was even more succinct when a follow question asked if he could talk about the precautions the team has taken.
“No,” the coach replied.
The 49ers can ill afford to have a diminished Sopoaga. He is the centerpiece of the team's dominating front seven. At 330 pounds with a great first step, Sopoaga often demands a double team.
A starter at left end the past three seasons, Sopoaga slid to his right this year and has been a more than adequate replacement for Aubrayo Franklin, a key figure in San Francisco’s defense who anchored the team’s front wall since 2007 before leaving via free agency this summer.
Sopoaga’s strong play at his new position – actually, Sopoaga played nose tackle for the 49ers earlier in his career after being drafted by the team in 2004 – has freed up defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, who have flourished on each side of the Samoan native.
McDonald, in particular, is having a career year, and Smith has made a career of proving that few offensive linemen can handle him one-on-one. After playing for the NFC in the past two Pro Bowls, Smith is off to another strong start.
Sopoaga has been practically an immovable object up front in a San Francisco defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing just 74 yards rushing per game.
Sopoaga also has taken on a second job with the 49ers – as a situational fullback – and he’s done it with relish. Sopoaga was part of a twin fullback set that mauled the Eagles at the end of the 49ers' 24-23 upset win in Philadelphia last week.
The 49ers ran the same play to the right side – with Sopoaga, pulling guard Mike Iupati and fullback Bruce Miller leading Frank Gore into the hole – three consecutive times and got the first down they needed to run out the clock.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said it was highly unlikely Sopoaga would play against the Bucs. That means Ricky Jean Francois, a converted 310-pound defensive end, would replace him. Francois is active but doesn't possess Sopoaga's girth or strength.
Francois had mixed results when getting some playing time last year in place of Franklin. Francois might be better prepared for the challenge this year, and he worked on his conditioning during the NFL lockout by running the beaches of Miami.
“Once you get tired at some point, you've got to use technique," he said. "And that was one thing that I always worked on. I had to work on my technique. I had to. That was the biggest thing for me at that position because a lot of people said I'm too small, I'm not fast enough, I might not be strong enough, so my technique has to fall in."
Said Harbaugh, “We always have felt confident in Ricky Jean, and he’s played quite a bit of football here. It’s not a matter of gaining that now, we’ve always been confident in Ricky Jean.”
Another player who could have played the position, Will Tukuafu, was placed on injured reserve this week with a wrist injury. That means the 49ers might have to fast-track rookie free agent Ian Williams to back up Francois this week. The 305-pounder from Notre Dame has yet to be active for a game this season.