Only time will tell if the loss of Jacobs hurts the 49ers.
If that injury status worsens by Sunday at 1:25 p.m. PT, how significant would the loss of the 49ers' running back and return specialist prove to be against Green Bay?
Had Jacobs not been injured in the early goings of the preseason, he’d fill the role of the No. 3 running back. He’d function as the power back in short-yardage and goal-line situations that proved so inauspicious for San Francisco in 2011.
Ginn performed an entirely different function for the 49ers last year. He occupied the No. 1 position as the returner on both punts and kickoffs. He also provided a speed dynamic on fly sweeps, misdirection runs and as a receiver on offense.
As the current reality now dictates, Anthony Dixon has the third-string responsibility for San Francisco’s rushing offense. Many expected him to not even make the team with all of the new personnel the team brought in at the position.
After a solid preseason of racking up 171 yards and two touchdowns, however, Dixon capitalized on his opportunity and solidified his standing on the team.
That said, the primary concern with Dixon is his effectiveness in short-yardage scenarios on the gridiron. He failed mightily in that role last season—playoffs especially—and fell short at times in the preseason as well. His overall success was certainly laudable this offseason, but the concern remains.
Ginn’s absence—if that indeed comes to pass—would be something else entirely. Ginn is the 49ers’ primary return man and by far the best in that capacity on the team. No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter fills a secondary role on kickoffs, while Kyle Williams holds down that job on punt returns.
Hunter performed fairly well in this capacity during the preseason. He accrued a 28.5-yard-average, but that occurred on just two returns. In the 2011 regular season, he returned six kicks with an average of 26.5 yards and a long of 43.
Not bad, but certainly not great.
Regarding the backup punt returner, Williams did not see much return action in the preseason. Even with the well-documented details of last postseason’s debacle, he’s still a fine player in this capacity. His speed, vision and quickness, though, still do not match Ginn’s all-world abilities.
So, where does that leave the 49ers on Sunday against the Packers at their hallowed Lambeau Field?
For starters, Jim Harbaugh’s club led the league in average starting field position last year. It relies heavily on the advantageous position Ginn affords them with his dynamic returns.
Even with the new weapons on the outside for Alex Smith, and the methodical, yet successful nature of the 49ers run game, this team functions much better on a short field.
Hunter and Williams must find a way to consistently deliver if Ginn can’t suit up. The 49ers need every advantage they can get against a Packers offense that operates prolifically regardless of the field position.
Vic Fangio’s top-ranked defensive unit will hold its own against any offense in the game. But even the best will tire if the offense forces the defense back on the field time and again.
Consistently poor returns create poor field position and facilitate unfavorable time of possession. The 49ers offense thrives off a short field, which then allows its defensive counterpart to thrive in turn.
Which would be the greater loss for the 49ers?
In order for the 49ers to succeed off a short field, it must receive quality smash-mouth play from its running backs on third-and-short. Jacobs—as evidenced in the preseason—was effective in that assignment. Putting Dixon in that position creates much more uncertainty.
Now, can either A.J. Jenkins or LaMichael James—both of San Francisco’s first two draft picks—contribute in the return and/or run game?
James, however, offers both return abilities behind Hunter and Williams, as well as a dynamic threat on offense. He returned seven kicks for 183 yards and six punts for 32 in the preseason.
While those numbers don’t fly off the charts, they still deem James suitable for a backup role. Plus, his true value lies as a running-back/wide-receiver hybrid against a still-developing Green Bay defense.
That unit ranked as one of the worst in league history last season and will still need time to gel with its new draft picks.
Will Brandon Jacobs and Ted Ginn indeed miss one of the most important games of the season for the 49ers? As things stand, they might not have any choice. The coaching staff will do what’s necessary to retain them for the long haul.
But will holding them out prove devastating to the 49ers' chances of winning the game against the Packers?
Perhaps not devastating, but as things stand, their absence would create some big question marks in crucial areas of the field.
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