Replacing Miller a Group Effort

Will Tukuafu (Getty Images)

The 49ers found their replacement for Bruce Miller Wednesday, but it wasn't a fullback. Inside we break down the addition of Will Tukuafu to the fold and how San Francisco's offense will go forward without one of its key players.

The San Francisco 49ers did not elect to bring in Owen Marecic after all.

Instead, they will replace injured fullback Bruce Miller with Will Tukuafu on the active roster. Miller was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after fracturing his left scapula in Sunday's win over Tampa Bay.

With Miller out, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman will have to devise a plan that doesn't including the use of a traditional fullback. The 49ers no longer have one. Tukuafu is a defensive linemen by trade that's been used sparingly at fullback in the past. He played 90 snaps there in 2012.

It won't be easy. Miller's been on the field for 59 percent of the 49ers' plays this season. He's the team's third leading receiver with 25 catches for 243 yards (the obvious caveat is the absence of two of the team's top three receivers for most of the year). But for an offense that runs the ball more than any other in the league, the loss of their fullback in front of Frank Gore should not be understated. He was also Colin Kaepernick's favorite check-down target in the passing game.

"He does so many things in the protection and the run game," Harbaugh said of Miller Monday. "Receiving out of the backfield. He is a multi-talented, multi-use player. Special teams contributor on two, three phases, so it's a loss."

Tukuafu might be used sparingly at fullback if he can find a way crack the active 46 on game days. The Oregon alum broke camp with the team in September as a defensive lineman, but suffered a knee injury and was released after agreeing to an injury settlement Sept. 10.

It's more likely the 49ers will employ a group strategy to replace Miller rather than rely on Tukuafu to play a key role on offense. That onus will fall on tight ends, wide receivers and Anthony Dixon.

Dixon replaced Miller late in Sunday's 33-14 win at fullback. The boisterous special teamer has been used on offense in a reserve role taking garbage-time carries away from Gore and Kendall Hunter. Dixon has the best shot at replacing Miller in the long term because the switch from halfback to fullback isn't as drastic as switching from tight end.

Speaking of tight ends, Vance McDonald - still inconsistent as a run blocker after playing mostly slot receiver in college - could see his role increase after already being tasked with replacing Delanie Walker as a rookie. As the season went along, it was Miller who formed into the H-back role that Walker left behind while McDonald continued to develop.

But McDonald was held out of Sunday's game against the Bucs. He suffered an ankle injury in Week 13 against the Rams, but returned to start the following game against Seattle. He's been the most oft-used tight end along side Vernon Davis in two-tight end sets. At 267 pounds, McDonald has the size that makes him more equipped to handle the blocking duties of a fullback. But he's still green. Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier could also fill that role in varying degrees.

The 49ers employ Adam Snyder and Daniel Kilgore at tight end in early-down and short-yardage running situations in their jumbo package. That's likely to increase with Miller out. But the problem with relying more on heavy sets is the lack of diversity it provides. Snyder won't be running the wheel routes that Miller's excelled at in the past.

The most significant change that could come with Miller's absence is the use of Mario Manningham in three-receiver sets. Manningham has played just 17, 16 and 15 snaps over the last three games since the return of Michael Crabtree. Over the last two he has just one catch for two yards.

San Francisco runs about a quarter of its offensive plays with three wideouts; fewer than most teams. That falls in line with the team's heavy reliance on the running game.

The wild card to replace Miller? Davis.

Davis is the most versatile player on the offense and could spend more plays in the backfield in Miller's absence. That would allow him to match up with linebackers rather than safeties in the intermediate passing game, which would be to the 49ers' advantage.

All this speculation about replacing a fullback is dizzying. But the number of options with varying skill sets speak to the versatility and value Miller had in the offense.

The 49ers don't have much time to adjust to life without their fullback with the playoffs just two weeks out. But with a deep roster, they have plenty of options to try.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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