Brunskill arrived at the Los Angeles Coliseum long before kickoff against the Los Angeles Rams and was seeking ways to clear his mind. So he did the only thing he could think of: He played a game of euchre and, to no one’s surprise, was quickly on the other end of some Joe Staley jokes.
“It was probably one of the more nervous games I’ve ever had,” Brunskill said. “I tried to keep it calm. Joe was messing with me. … You know the game plan going in. I always like to go over it one more time to make sure it’s fresh in my head, but don’t want to be constantly thinking about things.”
Fortunately for the Niners, it didn’t take Brunskill — who entered last weekend’s game with eight regular-season snaps to his name — long to get rid of the butterflies. Once he settled in, Brunskill had a solid first start and earned praise from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his teammates for his ability to stay even-keeled.
As it turns out, that’s a trait shared by many of Brunskill’s teammates. It’s one that’s been put to the test often during the first five games of the season.
Whether it’s Brunskill, left tackle Justin Skule, tight end-turned-fullback Ross Dwelley, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley or someone else, the 5-0 49ers have continued to thrive despite injuries to some of their most important players. That ability to step up has been one of the keys to San Francisco’s emergence as a legitimate postseason contender.
“When people go in there for the first time, the whole team wants to see them, and then you start to go through the game and you realize the whole world is not on that person’s shoulders — no one’s ever just thrown out by themselves,” Shanahan said. “You always try to take care of people who are out there for their first time.”
Since Shanahan’s arrival in 2017, the Niners have grown accustomed to relying on backups to step in for injured players. In 2018, San Francisco placed 18 players on injured reserve, losses that included its starting quarterback, running back, a wide receiver, both safeties, the primary slot receiver and multiple key backups and special-teams contributors.
That team wasn’t equipped to overcome such attrition. Once quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was lost in Week 3, so, too, was the season.
After another offseason of bolstering the roster, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch insisted that their depth had improved. That would be tested early.
In each of their first four games, the Niners lost a starter to a multiweek injury. In Week 1, it was running back Tevin Coleman‘s sprained ankle. In Week 2, it was Staley’s broken fibula. Week 3 brought cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon‘s foot sprain. A double whammy came in Week 5, when fullback Kyle Juszczyk sprained his MCL and right tackle Mike McGlinchey suffered a knee injury.
To fill the voids, the Niners turned to running backs Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. to step in for Coleman. Skule, the team’s fourth tackle when camp opened, replaced Staley. Moseley has filled in for Witherspoon, with Dwelley replacing Juszczyk and Brunskill in for McGlinchey.
While most backups tout the idea of preparing like a starter, the Niners’ group of fill-ins has taken it to heart, watching one backup after another stepping into a starting role and thriving.
For these Niners replacements, success has been rooted in a combination of locker room support and scheme. Injured teammates haven’t hesitated to help, and Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh haven’t put them in position to fail.
Staley invited Skule to his house for a crash course soon after his injury. After Skule gave up a sack to Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald on the third play from scrimmage Sunday, it was Staley who quickly reminded him that there was a whole game to play.
In Dwelley’s case, Juszczyk’s help has been imperative, as Dwelley’s natural position is tight end. After a week of tutoring from Juszczyk, Dwelley played a career-high 31 snaps and earned positive reviews from Shanahan.
“You have injuries every year so you always have to adjust,” Shanahan said. “The more you get to go through those situations, I think, the better you get at doing it.
“That’s why you’re always working with guys, working with the practice squad, working with the first guy on the roster and the last guy on the roster. The true cliché of you’re always one play away from starting, it happens a lot.”
It also helps to have coaches like Shanahan and Saleh who understand how to put players in position to succeed. Brunskill has been impressed with how Shanahan offers detailed breakdowns of every play’s strengths and weaknesses and every possible reaction the defense can have to it.
For example, if the Niners have a run play called and the defense is showing a certain look — what the 49ers call “uphill looks” — he will get out of it rather than trying to force the issue.
“It gives you a lot of confidence to play fast,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “It helps guys like E-Man, it helps guys like Skule, who come in and make this just plug and play. Know your role, you’re one of 11. You just have to do your part, and they do a great job of making those guys feel comfortable.”
Soon enough, the Niners will welcome their starters back. When they do, they’ll have confidence that should injury strike again, they’ll be ready to handle the fallout.
“I think the guys start to develop the mentality that it doesn’t matter who’s out there, and that’s what you always want to say as a coach,” Shanahan said. “But it’s kind of hard to get it done, and it’s been a credit to our guys that they’ve been able to do that.”