YSTL: How will 49ers replace Miller? Will Kap use his legs more?
Anthony Dixon could be more of a factor running the ball on first and second downs than Bruce Miller. (USATSI)
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The 49ers had essentially found their replacement for Delanie Walker. And, now, they must find a replacement for his replacement.
In fact, fullback Bruce Miller had become even more vital to the 49ers’ offense than Walker. A year ago, Walker played 56.8 percent of the 49ers’ snaps. This season, Miller was on the field 59.2 percent of the time.
Miller was the 49ers’ third-leading receiver in addition to being a huge factor in the run game as a lead-blocker for 1,000-yard rusher Frank Gore.
With Miller's expected absence for the remainder of the season due to a suspected fracture to his shoulder blade, offensive coordinator Greg Roman is going to have to adjust with the personnel he already has at his disposal.
After all, it's highly unlikely anybody the 49ers could add to their 53-man roster at this point in the season would step in and suit up for games. And the 49ers can be expected to look to several different players for help in compensating for the loss of Miller:
FB Anthony Dixon: Faced with the very real possibility he could be released before the 2012 season, Dixon volunteered to move to fullback. It was a wise decision for the 235-pounder who had frustrated coaches in his first two seasons with an apparent lack of commitment.
Dixon won a roster spot the past two seasons but has made no impact on offense. Instead, he has proven his worth on special teams. Now, he’ll get his chance as a blocker. He entered Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for four running plays after Miller’s injury.
On his first snap, he flattened Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson on a play in which Gore gained 4 yards. He also made good blocks on cornerbacks to enable Kendall Hunter to gain a totalof 8 yards on two runs.
Dixon could be more of a factor running the ball on first and second downs than Miller. After all, he gained nearly 1,400 yards as a senior in the SEC at Mississippi State in 2009. He has not been used much as a receiver with just seven receptions for 20 yards in four seasons with the 49ers.
TE Derek Carrier: The 49ers have used two-tight end personnel groupings about half of their snaps this season. That could increase in the final two regular-season games and the playoffs. Like Walker, Carrier wears No. 46, and he came into the NFL last year as a 225-pound wide receiver from a small school, Beloit (Wisc.).
Carrier put on 25 pounds after the Philadelphia Eagles moved him to tight end. Since he’s been with the 49ers, he’s watched some film of Walker to get an idea of what the 49ers want from him. Although he’s 4 inches taller than Walker and roughly the same weight, he is being asked to learn the same jack-of-all trades assignments that the 49ers designed for Walker. Carrier is getting comfortable with a variety of responsibilities, including tight end, slot, wide receiver, H-back and fullback.
Of course, there could also be more playing time coming for rookie Vance McDonald, who missed Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain, and third tight end Garrett Celek.
[REWIND: Miller scheduled for X-rays on arm]
WR Mario Manningham: It’s been nearly 12 months since Manningham sustained the season-ending knee injury of a year ago. He has been back for five games and he has yet to make much of an impact. As he gets healthier, the 49ers could employ more three-receiver formations with him joining Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree on the field.
On Sunday, Manningham played just 14 snaps of 19 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps. In five games, he has nine receptions for 85 yards. He has been nursing knee soreness, and has seen limited action despite being listed as questionable for several weeks.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and Roman will have to determine if the 49ers’ offense is better with more usage of Manningham as the No. 3 wide receiver or with more run-oriented packages featuring Dixon or a second tight end. Last season, Manningham was the 49ers' No. 2 receiver with 42 catches for 449 yards despite missing four games.