Back in early November, 49ers running back Anthony Dixon was frustrated about his lack of playing time, and unleashed his feelings on Twitter.
After not playing on offense in the 49ers’ loss to the Saints and losing his spot on the kickoff-return team to LaMichael James, Dixon posted several angry (and punctuation-challenged) tweets, including:
“Jus flat outright salty right now WTF praying for more opportunities”; “It jus sucks to have major skill and not allowed to show it wishing the hating would stop smh”; and, “I know I’m a threat I know my game is ready to dominate at the highest level. …”
Well, now Dixon might get his chance.
Dixon, a special-teams ace and short-yardage power back, is first in line to replace starting fullback Bruce Miller, who’s likely gone for the rest of the season after suffering an injury to his scapula (shoulder blade) in Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay.
After Miller was injured, Dixon filled in for him the remainder of the game, and would be the most logical long-term solution for the 49ers to fill Miller’s spot for the remaining two games of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Miller, a converted defensive end from Central Florida, has been a mainstay of the 49ers’ physical ground attack since his rookie year in 2011. At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, he’s a terrific run blocker and solid pass catcher out of the backfield. He rarely carries the ball – just seven times this season -- but has 25 catches for 243 yards and a 9.7-yard average in 2013.
Most importantly, Miller is a significant cog in the 49ers complex running game that employs power formations, traps and pulls.
“Very significant,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Monday of Miller’s loss. “He does so many things in the protection and the run game. Receiving out of the backfield. He is a multi-talented, multi-use player. Special teams contributor on two, three phases, so it’s a loss.”
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com noted Miller was in on nearly 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this season. Bill Williamson quoted ESPN analyst Matt Williamson that Miller’s injury is a “big under-the-radar loss.”
Dixon, of course, is a big, physical player with more speed than Miller who might be able to fill the role. As he shows on special teams, Dixon plays with energy and enthusiasm. Another option is backup inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, a player very much in Miller’s mold (6-foot, 240 pounds). Wilhoite, an undrafted free agent from Div. II Washburn in 2011, has played well spelling Patrick Willis, and learned the fullback position this past offseason. Another option is former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic, who spent four games with the 49ers earlier this season and is a free agent (though the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows reports a source has told him Marecic won’t sign with the 49ers).
What also might happen with Miller’s absence is a shift in the offensive scheme to go away from plays using a fullback – more three wide-receiver sets and double tight-end sets, says Bill Williamson. The 49ers may still run the ball as often, but out of different formations.
As Barrows noted, the 49ers are one of only three teams in the NFL that runs the ball more than it passes – the Seahawks and Panthers are the others – and that the 49ers have the greatest propensity toward the run, with 452 rushing plays to 362 pass plays.
The first test for the 49ers offense, and perhaps Dixon, will come this coming Monday night, when the Falcons (4-10) play the 49ers (10-4) at Candlestick Park.