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Whatever It Takes to Win

Posted Dec 29, 2011

Change has been a constant characteristic of the 49ers offense this season. Personnel groups being shuttled in and out, tight ends and fullbacks split out wide, linemen going out for passes – offensive coordinator Greg Roman has done all those things.

Though they are beset with injuries to players like tight end Delanie Walker, receivers Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers have a weapon to combat the shortened roster: a creative system.

“I think we’re moving around more than ever,” said backup tackle Alex Boone, who has seen action in all 15 games this season. “You’ve got tackles playing tight end, flipping guys around all over the place – it’s a very interesting offense. It’s complex and fun to play in.”

Roman will have to dig deeper into his bag of tricks on Sunday against the Rams if the 49ers want to clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Facing a 2-13 team poised to play the role of spoiler, the 49ers expect an all-out effort from St. Louis on Sunday.

Speaking of change, the Rams defense is another unit which likes to give the opposition multiple looks. Under the tutelage of head coach Steve Spagnuolo, regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the NFL, St. Louis has remained on the “cutting edge” of defensive schemes, according to Roman.

“They present a lot of schematic problems,” Roman shared. “They can overload blitz you like nobody’s business and they’re a very quick, active front.”

Talented as they may be, the Rams had a hard time keeping up with the 49ers in their Week 13 meeting, which resulted in a 26-0 49ers shutout.

Working with head coach Jim Harbaugh, Roman has established himself as one of the league’s most innovative play-callers this season. Not only do the 49ers (12-3) rank seventh in the league in rushing, but quarterback Alex Smith has set a new career high with 2,931 passing yards.

Much of the success can be traced to the offensive line, which had three members recognized by the Pro Bowl voters this week. While Joe Staley has been picked to start at left tackle for the NFC All-Star team, center Jonathan Goodwin and guard Mike Iupati have also been selected as Pro Bowl alternates.

Aside from pancaking defenders, the mauling linemen have also been involved with the passing game this year. Staley has already hauled in a 17-yard catch this season, and he even ran a deep route in Week 15 against Pittsburgh, but was well-covered on the play.

“We like to keep them on their toes,” Boone said. “You never know where we’re going to hit them from.”

More than ever, the 49ers passing game will feature unknown elements his week. Without the services of recently-released receiver Braylon Edwards and the statuses of Ginn (ankle) and Williams (concussion) up in the air, the 49ers will have to rely on a few different perimeter targets.

Judging by positive comments made by Roman, scout team receiver Joe Hastings is a top candidate to make the leap to the 53-man roster, while reserve wideout Brett Swain will also likely get more action this week.

“When your number is called at this level, you always have to be ready,” Swain said. “You got to be able to plug yourself in wherever you’re needed and your attitude has to be whatever it takes to help the team win.”

Swain, who was signed by the 49ers in Week 6 after spending part of training camp with the Green Bay Packers, made his only catch of the year against the Steelers two weeks ago. Though he’s been used frequently on kickoff and punt return units, Swain expects to see more snaps on offense.

Hastings, meanwhile, would be making his NFL debut if called upon Sunday. Listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds, Hastings isn’t the most intimidating player walking around 49ers headquarters.

“We had couple of jokes for him (during training camp),” Ginn said. “But he’s just a great creator. He looks kind of soft and timid, but he’s a hard-nosed guy.”

While Ginn said he’s hopeful to play Sunday after sitting out last week’s contest with an ankle injury, he is confident Hastings can handle the added responsibility.

Since day one, the 24-year-old rookie out of Washburn University – a small school in Topeka, Kan. – has been proactive in trying to gain NFL knowledge. With Harbaugh getting the practice squad so involved this year, even flying out the unit on road trips, Hastings has been prepped well for a possible promotion.

“I feel good about all the receivers,” Smith said. “All those guys, we’ve got such great character in that room. All those guys work hard. They’re all extremely talented and I think they’re all chomping at the bit to get their opportunity, which is what you want.”

Hastings has always been willing to put in the extra effort. Fellow 49ers scout team player Michael Wilhoite, who played collegiately with Hastings at Washburn, said the two used to shovel snow in their spare time for extra cash.

“He’s very good at what he does and he works hard to be good,” Wilhoite said. “He’s done that stuff for a long time.”

With Walker likely to be sidelined with his jaw injury on Sunday, 10-year veteran Justin Peelle could also be more involved with the 49ers offense. Roman said he scouted Peelle out of college and has been aware of his talents ever since.

“He is a very heady player, very smart player, very cagy player,” Roman said.

Because of the injuries to his perimeter players, Roman will also have to be heady, smart and cagy when calling plays on Sunday.