The 49ers' offense took a new look without their top two tight ends in Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald in Sunday's loss to the first-place Cardinals. Their running backs received just nine carries, in part because of the team's reliance on tight ends as blockers.
But that could change Sunday when the Philadelphia Eagles come to Levi's Stadium in a pivotal game for 1-2 San Francisco. Davis said his injured ankle feels "much better" this week after it was decided Saturday he wouldn't be available for the game in Arizona.
"I’m feeling great. It’s day-by-day, one step at a time," Davis said. "It’s going to be a good week."
"Optimistic," coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday about Davis' potential return. "Very hopeful that he’ll be able to play Sunday."
The 49ers made a roster move Tuesday that would indicate at least one of the team's tight ends will return to action this week. They released tight end Asante Cleveland, who had previously been on the practice squad after being added to the 53-man roster a day before the Cardinals game. In turn they re-signed third quarterback Josh Johnson.
McDonald, who has become a key blocker for the running game, suffered a knee injury in the first half of the Bears game on Frank Gore's 54-yard touchdown run that was nullified by Anquan Boldin's holding penalty. Both he and Davis were questionable heading into Sunday after not practicing last week.
Davis' absences from games over the last two seasons has been an ominous sign for the 49ers. In games he left due to injury or missed completely, the team is 0-4 dating back to the start of last season. He left last September's loss to the Seahawks early with a hamstring injury and couldn't play in the team's next game against the Colts, another loss. In November, he left a 10-9 defeat to the Carolina Panthers early with a concussion.
"I’m not going to say just because I was out of the game, these guys lost," Davis said. "...It doesn’t matter if I’m out there or not. It’s just timing. We have some things that we need to work on as far as execution and finishing. So I think we’ll get together, I know we’ll get together and correct these things."
The 49ers struggled to execute on third down in the second half of Sunday's loss. They went 1 of 6 on conversions after being successful on 5 of 7 in the first half. They were outscored 17-0 in the second half Sunday and have yet to score a second-half touchdown this season.
Sunday's offensive game plan was an indication the 49ers are more equipped this year to handle the loss of their tight ends after being one of the league's most run-heavy teams since Harbaugh took over in 2011. San Francisco called upon four and five-receiver sets on 28 plays Sunday. The offense had never used five receivers, or "00 personnel," under Harbaugh, according to Pro Football Focus.
It allowed third wideout Stevie Johnson to breakout with nine catches for 103 yards. Colin Kaepernick's 78.37 completion percentage was a career high, as were his 29 completions.
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