49ers lose Breida, Pettis to injuries for finale

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The 49ers have to wait for next year to see more of running back Matt Breida and wide receiver Dante Pettis.

Breida sprained his left ankle last Sunday during the 49ers’ 14-9 loss to the Chicago Bears, while Pettis sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Both will miss the 49ers’ upcoming season finale against the Los Angeles Rams, head coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed Monday on a conference call.

Breida injured his ankle on the first play of the second quarter against the Bears, when All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack landed on his leg. Breida left the game and did not return.

Pettis injured his knee later during the same second-quarter drive, when he caught a four-yard pass from Nick Mullens and quickly tried to spin away from Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. But, Floyd grabbed Pettis from behind and bent him sideways. Pettis’ foot caught in the turf. He immediately grabbed his left knee and lay motionless in the fetal position. The injury looked worse than it was.

Neither Pettis’ injury nor Breida’s injury is considered serious.

Pettis and Breida are crucial for the future of the 49ers offense. Both became starters this season after veterans went down with injuries. Pettis replaced Pierre Garcon when Garcon injured his knee midseason, and Breida replaced Jerick McKinnon when McKinnon tore his ACL before the season began.

Pettis finished 2018 with 27 catches for 467 yards and five touchdowns. And Breida finished with 153 carries for 814 yards and three touchdowns.

“Matt had a very impressive season,” Shanahan said. “He started out great, stepped in right away and played like a No. 1 back. For a while, (he was) close to the league lead in rushing. Had a ton of explosive (runs). Had a good yards per carry.”

The 49ers signed Breida in 2017 as an undrafted free agent. Through the first five weeks this season when Breida was healthy, he averaged a gargantuan 7.53 yards per carry.

But, during the 49ers’ Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Breida injured his left ankle for the first time, and averaged just 4.28 yards per carry the rest of the season. He also missed the 49ers’ 20-14 win over the Denver Broncos two weeks ago.

“He battled every week to get in there and play for us,” Shanahan said. “He ended up hurting (his ankle) every week also, so it lingered all year. He has not been 100 percent for a while, and that has affected his production, has made it harder for him to look the same way he did at the beginning of the year. He can still take (his game) to a whole other level the healthier he gets next year.”

Shanahan believes the same holds true for Pettis.

The 49ers traded up to take Pettis in the second round of the 2018 draft. He injured his left knee twice this season — last Sunday, and Week 4 against the LA Chargers. The first knee injury made him miss three games. He seemed like a disappointment. Until Week 10, he had caught just three passes.

“He truly had to go through (the season) to understand the urgency of the NFL, and all the stuff you have to go through to get open on a route,” Shanahan explained. “Dante has had success everywhere he has been, and I know he expects to have it at the NFL level, too. It takes a while for a guy to learn maybe why he isn’t having (success).

“Dante is a hard worker. He does everything you ask. But, it took him some time to realize how hard you have to go on every single route, how exact you have to be with your technique, with your feet, how aggressive your hands have to be. You don’t get much man-to-man (coverage) in college, so you don’t have to worry about holding. Now, in the NFL, guys are on you every play. You can’t just push them off. You’ve got to be good with your feet and win at the line (of scrimmage).”

Pettis started to do those things Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, just after the 49ers’ bye week. He caught four passes for 77 yards and one touchdown during that game.

Since that 27-9 loss to the Buccaneers, Pettis has caught 20 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns — impressive numbers for a five-game stretch. If he maintained those numbers for a full 16-game season, he would be on pace to catch 64 passes for 1,149 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“It took Dante failing a little bit earlier in the year (for him) to (realize he) can take it to another level,” Shanahan said. “I think he gradually did that as the year went. Hopefully, he learned (how much) success he can have the harder he goes. He’s going to get better or worse, and we need him to get better. We need him to get better every day.”

Ditto for Breida.

So much depends on those two young players.

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