In the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Francisco 49ers were dealt a devastating loss. Bruce Miller, their starting fullback, suffered a broken scapula in his shoulder and was placed on injured reserve later in the week, officially ending his season. To a casual fan, Miller is not a player that elicits much attention. Unless you carefully observe the intricacies of the 49er offense, his value is not apparent to a cursory view.
The fullback in general is a dying breed in the NFL. Some teams don’t even use a fullback and instead prefer to use an additional tight end or wide receiver. Most teams that still utilize the fullback use him as a receiver out of the backfield or a backup running back. The Niners are one of the few teams that use the fullback as a lead blocker for their running game. That is what makes Bruce Miller so unique and so valued to the 49er offense.
When former 49er tight end Delanie Walker departed in free agency last offseason, many expected San Francisco to use rookie tight end Vance McDonald in the same role Walker had in the previous season. However, it has been Bruce Miller that has taken up the task of being the Swiss Army knife. From observing film, I have seen the 49ers use Miller in three ways — as a lead blocker for Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, as the edge sealer in both run and pass plays, and as a checkdown receiver for Kaepernick out of the backfield.
In the first offensive play of the game for the 49ers, Miller lined up as a receiver in the 49ers’ 1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WR look (11 Personnel). Miller then motioned into the backfield, so the Niners entered into a 1 TE, 2 RB, 2 WR look (21 Personnel). Miller and Frank Gore lined up in I-formation behind Kaepernick with the tight end Vernon Davis on the right side. Kaepernick gave one quick pump fake before handing it off to Gore on the delayed run. Miller pretended to pass block before leading up to the middle linebacker Foster, opening up a huge hole on the right side for Gore. One downfield block by Boldin, and Gore opened the game with a ten-yard run up the middle.
That first play epitomizes Bruce Miller’s role as a lead blocker for Gore. On the majority of the 49er runs, the play goes in the direction of Miller. He can lead up for the running back down the middle to the linebacker like he did in the last play. However, a more underrated aspect of Miller’s game is his athleticism.
In the 49ers’ second offensive play of the third quarter, Vernon Davis lined up as a receiver and the Niners were in their 2 RB, 3 WR look(20 Personnel) with a Split Backs backfield. After Davis was brought in motion to the right side, Kaepernick handed the ball off to LaMichael James for an off-tackle run to the left side. The notable aspect of this play was Miller’s quickness of the snap. By the time Kaep hands the ball off, Miller had already engaged the playside defensive end, the one threat to the play. With the left defensive end out of the way, James ran untouched for 21 yards with the luxury of having the guard, Adam Synder, as his lead blocker.
With 9:26 left in the third, the 49ers were lined up in a 2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR look (22 Personnel) with the backs in I-formation and the two tight ends lined up on the weakside. Kaepernick handed the ball off to Frank Gore on a stretch run with Bruce Miller as the lead blocker. After Gore broke a tackle in the backfield, Miller got five yards in front of him downfield, never surrendering his momentum to look behind him. Don’t let Miller’s defensive-end-like body fool you. He was quick enough to get to the safety Goldson and cut him down, giving Gore an opportunity to pick up seven extra yards.
In addition to his excellent work in the ground game, Miller has proved to be a valuable contributor in the passing game as Colin Kaepernick‘s checkdown option. Out of all the pass plays he was on the field for, Miller only pass blocked for three of them. He doesn’t have the downfield speed Delanie Walker had, limiting him to leaking out of the backfield in the flats and running five-yard out routes.
But with Kaepernick’s lapses in vision occasionally this season, Miller has provided a steady set of hands that Colin trusts to dump the ball off to when he is out of options. Miller’s ability to get out of the backfield and find the open spaces in the flats has been invaluable to Kaepernick’s development. With him gone now, the big question stands — how will the Niners cope?
Jim Harbaugh has announced Anthony Dixon as the new starting fullback. It remains to be seen if the 49ers will alter their offensive game plan to reduce Dixon’s fullback snaps or if they will continue to run their regular offensive sets.
Dixon has been used sparingly in his 49ers’ career as mainly a short-yardage and garbage-time tailback. At 6’1” 233 pounds, he certainly has the body to be a bruising blocker for Frank Gore and company. His physicality has found him a home on special teams. However, with limited experience at the fullback position, Dixon is a relative unknown.
One thing the Niners could look to utilize is Dixon’s speed in comparison to Miller’s. Dixon runs a 4.67 s 40-yard dash, while Miller runs it at 4.85 s. With Dixon’s experience at tailback, Kaepernick may not miss a beat without having Miller in the flats as his checkdown option, as Dixon looks to be a more than capable replacement in that regard.
The issue is likely going to be with run blocking. Without knocking on Dixon, there just isn’t enough conclusive evidence to say that the 49er run game will continue humming as it has been. Hopefully, he is up to the task. If not, Harbaugh and Greg Roman will have to get creative and start moving players around to find a rhythm in the rushing attack.