Why James can't contribute on 49ers offense

Offensive line limping into showdown with Seahawks

Why James can't contribute on 49ers offense
December 3, 2013, 9:45 am
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LaMichael James is most effective on sweeps and screens, finesse-type plays the 49ers offense line is not suited for. (USATSI)

The season is three-quarters completed and the 49ers have still not had their 11 offensive starters on the field at the same time.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree played for the first time this season on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, but guard Mike Iupati was out. And after six plays, so was tackle Joe Staley.

[RELATED: Sources: Staley's knee injury not a season-ender]

The 49ers’ offense is still a work in progress for coordinator Greg Roman, as injuries and players returning from injuries are constantly changing the dynamics of playing time and scheme.

Here are some observations about the 49ers’ use of offensive personnel with four regular-season games remaining:

--Running LaMichael James got zero playing time on offense against the Rams. Why? I think it’s because of the 49ers’ offense line. Let me explain: The 49ers have built a physical offensive line that is at its best when using brute force to create holes between the tackles. The 49ers are not a finesse offensive line, by any means. Sweeps and screens are finesse-type of plays. After watching the New Orleans Saints, it’s obvious that their offensive line is very good at blocking for screens. That's why the Saints use those plays so much and with great success. The 49ers’ offensive line does a lot of things very well. However, when it comes to blocking for screens, they’re . . . uh . . . well . . . not good. So, yes, James might be best-suited for those kinds of plays, but the 49ers’ offensive line is much better blocking for the inside running of Frank Gore. (James wrote on Twitter that he had food poisoning. I don't know if that had anything to do with his lack of playing time. After all, he played only three snaps of offense the previous game against Washington.)

--Wide receiver Quinton Patton should be ready for game action after returning to practice last week from a fractured right foot he sustained on Sept. 26. But with Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham as the top three receivers, it does not seem likely Patton will be able to crack into that group. And Kassim Osgood is more valuable as the No. 4 receiver because of his contributions on special teams. (After all, the 49ers don’t use three wide receivers very much, and they never put four wideouts on the field at the same time.) Therefore, Patton might not suit up for another game this season if the 49ers’ top three wide receivers remain healthy.

--The 49ers’ strength is their strength. They use two tight ends a lot. And they use fullback Bruce Miller a lot. When No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald was sidelined with an ankle sprain, Derek Carrier stepped in and saw his most playing time since his promotion from the practice squad. Carrier has impressed during practices. It'll be interesting to see what's decided when Garrett Celek is back from his hamstring injury.

--It was a bit of a surprise that Joe Looney, a second-year player who had been active for just one game in his career, came off the sideline ahead of Daniel Kilgore to take over at right guard for Alex Boone, who shifted to left tackle in place of Staley. Jim Harbaugh said it’s because Kilgore is the backup center, therefore Looney was the backup guard. One of those players, Kilgore or Looney, figures to be the starting center of the future.

--Assuming neither Staley nor Iupati is available Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers are likely to activate either guard Al Netter or tackle Carter Bykowski from the practice squad. The 49ers need a backup tackle, which would suggest Bykowski would get the call. But, more than likely, Adam Snyder now becomes the backup tackle with Kilgore moving to guard if Snyder is needed at tackle.

Offensive play time
Vs. St. Louis, 67 snaps
67 -- LG Adam Snyder, RT Anthony Davis, RG/LT Alex Boone, C Jonathan Goodwin, QB Colin Kaepernick
63 -- TE Vernon Davis
60 -- RG Joe Looney
51 -- WR Anquan Boldin
48 -- RB Frank Gore
42 -- WR Michael Crabtree
37 -- FB Bruce Miller
23 -- TE Derek Carrier, TE Vance McDonald
16 -- WR Mario Manningham
10 -- RB Kendall Hunter, RB Anthony Dixon
9 -- WR Kassim Osgood
6 -- LT Joe Staley
4 -- OL Daniel Kilgore