This Year, Depth is Difference for Niners

Two non-starters helped key San Francisco’s 27-13 win over Miami.

When  last season ended, the San Francisco 49ers were left short-handed in their NFC Championship game against the New York Giants. At the time, San Francisco had no Randy Moss (retirement), no Joshua Morgan (injured), no A. J. Jenkins (college) no LaMichael James, (college)  and both Brandon Jacobs, and Mario Manningham were on the opponent’s’ sideline.

But this year, all of the aforementioned names (spare Joshua Morgan) are on the 49ers roster. The only snafu has been with Manningham, who just recently came down with an injury.

The difference this year is the 49ers have the depth to withstand a few bumps and bruises.

Yes, it is extremely unfortunate for the 49ers that both tailback Kendall Hunter and receiver Kyle Williams have been lost for the remainder of the season.

However, this time around the 49ers have impressive secondary options on offense.

The one that stood out against the Dolphins is none other than second round draft pick LaMichael James. The former Oregon star carried the ball eight times for 30 yards and added a reception for 15 more. He also he took the game’s opening kick off for an impressive 34 yard return.

It may not sound like much, but James’ change of pace in the 49ers 27-13 victory on Sunday is exactly the type of play the 49ers have missed since Hunter went down with an injury against the Saints.

Oddly, James didn’t suit up last week in San Francisco’s 16-13 overtime loss in St. Louis, but the former Duck has similar explosive speed that Hunter had previously provided the 49ers running game.

“I thought he did a great job running the football” commented 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh on his rookie runner in his post-game presser. “I thought he made positive yards when they were there and then plus he had a little extra burst through the hole. Great debut by LaMichael.”

“He’s a great player and he opens up a lot of things for this offense” chimed still starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. “It’s something we’re both very comfortable with” Kaepernick confirmed about the college-esque option play with him and James on the field.

With Brandon Jacobs falling out of favor (or so it appears), and with the 49ers and being of a similar mold to both Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon, it would be shocking if James doesn’t continue to be the second lead back for the rest of the season.

While first round pick A.J. Jenkins has yet to make an impact in two games on the active roster, there was a second relatively unknown 49er that delivered big time plays against the Dolphins. That would be none other than No. 3 corner Chris Culliver.

The 49ers drafted the 6’0″ 200 pound Culliver in the third round out of South Carolina in the 2011 draft. Since then Culliver has solidified himself as the nickel corner in the 49ers defense.

Against the Dolphins, the second year corner deflected away three potential big plays for the Miami offense. One came on a crucial third down in 49ers territory, one on a deep ball down the sideline and another at the back of the 49ers end-zone.

After last week’s loss to the Rams, many 49er fans were left wondering if this team was truly a championship contender. And in this writer’s opinion, there is no doubt they are a championship contender. Chalk it up to the Rams having the 49ers number, hey, it happens.

But the 49ers have all the makings of a Super Bowl caliber team and that includes the often over looked factor of depth.

Coach Harbaugh was quite pleased when I mentioned Culliver’s name during his presser.

“Yeah great to bring that up, he made some big time break-ups. Made a great play on that deep ball there when we really needed it.”

The rest of the 49ers defense was more than happy to add in praise on their second year corner.

“He’s playing like a top corner in the National Football League” commented safety Donte Whitner. “He’s a big guy, 6 foot plus, almost 200 pounds and [has] become a student of the game. He’s just going to get better each and every week.”

“Anytime he’s on the field, I expect him to make a great play” added all-pro linebacker Patrick Willis.

Certainly the 49ers offense didn’t perform to quite the level they have in previous weeks. Still, there is a lot like. Besides James’ solid debut, the Niners demonstrated a propensity for some trickery. A flea-flicker attempt to Randy Moss in the end-zone should have been a touchdown, but a clear pass interference penalty was not called.

Had that play gone for six, I’m not so sure anyone would be nitpicking the Niners offense. Overall, Kaepernick led the 49ers to a win they had to have, and didn’t make any costly mistakes.

With the playmakers the 49ers have on both sides of the ball and the depth at nearly every position on the field, it’s hard not to put San Francisco on par with the top two or three contenders in the NFL.

Andrew Bensch writes for TheFanManifesto. Follow him on twitter at @AndyBensch

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