49ers injuries piling up along with wins

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SANTA CLARA – Every 49ers win seems to come with a significant loss.

The 49ers have won all the games they’ve played this season. They’re 4-0. But they’ve lost important players along the way.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk will miss four to six weeks with a sprained left MCL. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey will miss four to six weeks with cartilage damage in his right knee. Left tackle Joe Staley will miss another three to five weeks with a broken fibula. And cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon will miss at least another week with a foot sprain.

The next month will be tough for the 49ers, no matter whom they play. The 49ers can’t take any team for granted while they’re injured and depleted.

Here are the five biggest challenges the 49ers face, ranked from least difficult to most difficult.

5. Replacing cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Witherspoon had been by far the 49ers’ best cornerback before he injured his foot Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had played even better than Richard Sherman, a future Hall of Famer, who’s 31 and slowing down.

Witherspoon’s replacement, Emmanuel Moseley, had never started a game in the NFL before Monday night against the Browns. And he was surprisingly fantastic in his starting debut. He guarded All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and gave up just one catch for seven yards. Moseley also broke up a potential touchdown pass in the end zone.

“I told you guys he’s going to be fine,” Sherman said Wednesday in the locker room. “If our fans knew who he was, they wouldn’t have been as nervous going into the game. He’s a really good player.”

The Browns seemed to respect Moseley, considering how infrequently they challenged him. They were more much aggressive challenging Sherman. They targeted him eight times and completed four passes for 75 yards. Sherman also intercepted a pass.

“I don’t know the last time I had eight targets,” Sherman said. “It’s fun to get involved. But when I get targeted like that, I usually get the ball. I appreciate it both ways.”

It seems there are no weak links in the 49ers’ secondary, partially because the pass rush has been so good. Opposing wide receivers haven’t had time to get open.

“It makes it so much easier,” Sherman said.

As long as the pass rushers stay healthy, Moseley should hold his own. He’s no liability.

4. Replacing left tackle Joe Staley.

Staley went down Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Since then, Justin Skule has made two starts at left tackle and faced two good pass rushers — Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett.

Skule, a rookie sixth-round pick who less than a year ago was taking classes at Vanderbilt, gave up no sacks in either game.

“We lost one of the best left tackles in football, and nobody even notices he’s gone,” Sherman said. “That’s a testament to the scheme, to Skule and how well he’s playing.”

At first, the 49ers worried Skule would lack the strength to hold up against NFL pass rushers. So far, Skule has been strong enough. “He has been real good in his two starts,” Shanahan said. “I know our first drive of the third quarter versus Cleveland was probably our best drive of the day. It was eight plays.

“The third play was third-and-6 and Skule had a big block one on one. We had an out route to Marquise Goodwin that got us the first down and allowed us to go the rest of the way. If you don’t make that block on third down, you don’t get that drive.”

Staley’s absence has been most noticeable in the run game. During the two games he was healthy, the 49ers averaged a gargantuan 9.3 yards per carry around the left end. During the two games Skule has started, the 49ers have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry around the left end.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they’ve had success all season running around the right end (6.2 yards per carry).

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they just lost their right tackle, too.

3. Replacing right tackle Mike McGlinchey.

McGlinchey injured his knee against the Browns. To the 49ers’ surprise, he never left the game.

“That’s why I wasn’t quite as worried about it when I talked to you guys Monday night,” Shanahan said. “He came in the next morning. When they checked it out, it was a surprise to him and all of us.”

The 49ers drafted McGlinchey with the ninth pick in the 2018 draft. He hasn’t been an elite pass protector for the 49ers — he has given up two sacks in four games this season — but he is an elite run blocker. “He’s one of the main reasons we are running the ball so well,” Shanahan said.

McGlinchey’s replacement is former undrafted free agent Daniel Brunksill. Brunskill played on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad from 2017 to 2018, and for the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football in the spring of 2019. He has never started an NFL game.

“Very similar to Skule,” Shanahan said of Brunskill. “The game is not too big for him. He’s very efficient. He’s a smart player. He will get the job done and be ready for the challenge on third down.”

And Shanahan must be ready for the challenge of minimizing two backup offensive tackles’ weaknesses.

2. Replacing fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Through the first four games of the season, Juszczyk has been the 49ers’ offensive MVP. He is their best blocker and the key to unlocking their sophisticated, unpredictable running game.

“You don’t replace Juszczyk,” Shanahan said. “He’s one of a kind at fullback. No one is going to fully replace him. We’ve just got to do some different things and adjust.”

In this case, “adjust” means finding a new personnel grouping that works. When Juszczyk is healthy, the 49ers primarily use “21 personnel,” which is two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers. The 49ers use this grouping more than any other offense and have tremendous success with it.

While Juszczyk is out, the 49ers will use more “12 personnel” — one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. The 49ers have had much less success with this grouping.

Simply running the ball will be a challenge for the next month.

1. Establishing a wide receiver.

Passing the ball may not be much easier.

The 49ers have two inexperienced tackles protecting their franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. And they have no go-to wide receiver.

Against the Browns, all 49ers receivers combined caught seven passes for just 79 yards and no touchdowns. And through four games, the 49ers’ leading wide receiver, Marquise Goodwin, is on pace for just 664 receiving yards this season.

“It’s not going to be one guy making a play,” Garoppolo explained. “We’re not that type of offense. It’s a guy making a play here, and now we complement with a guy making a play over here, and just everyone playing their role.”

But the 49ers’ wide receivers don’t have defined roles. Rookie Deebo Samuel started the first two games and then got benched.

Second-year wideout Dante Pettis started the past two games, but has gained only 38 receiving yards all season.

The 49ers drafted Samuel with the 36th pick in this year’s draft, and traded up to take Pettis with the 44th pick in 2018 draft. The 49ers have high expectations for both of them. Both dropped a pass against the Browns. One needs to step up.

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