In a matter of seconds, the seasons of two 49ers ended on the turf of the Superdome Sunday in New Orleans.
On what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill toss play to the left side of the line, running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Kyle Williams both suffered serious injuries that have cut short their 2012 campaigns. The 49ers placed Hunter and Williams on the Injured Reserve list on Tuesday, dealing two big blows to a team that has stayed remarkably healthy since the start of the Jim Harbaugh era in 2011.
"That was a major hit," running back Anthony Dixon said. "Kyle and Kendall, they're both go-to guys in our offense, they made a lot of plays for us this year. To see that go down on one play, it's like, 'Man, that's crazy.'
"But we pride ourselves on being a stacked team. We pride ourselves on being deep and we've just got to show up this week."
Williams suffered his knee injury while trying to set up a block for Hunter, who injured his ankle as a defender rolled him up during the tackle. Williams and Hunter shared the golf cart ride off the field together, and now they'll share each other's company during their respective long-term rehabs.
Along with Frank Gore, Hunter helped form the NFL's most productive tailback tandem through 12 weeks of the season. Hunter had 371 yards on an impressive 5.2 yards per carry this season behind Gore, who ranks ninth in the league with 912 yards.
The news of Hunter's severe injury was especially tough for Gore, who has become something of a big brother and a mentor during Hunter's two NFL seasons.
"That's a big loss," the 49ers rushing king said. "I respect his game, everybody on the team respects his game. Kendall's a player that can make a big play any time in the game."
Williams, meanwhile, had established himself as a regular threat in the 49ers passing game and a weapon as a return man.
With the loss of two quality players on the offense, there will surely be a ripple effect on the rest of the roster. Receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James, the first two 49ers draft picks of 2012, could see their first NFL game action as a result of the injuries.
Playing time could also increase for veterans Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs in the following weeks, while the 49ers also elevated tailback Jewel Hampton to the 53-man roster on Tuesday and signed receiver Chad Hall to the practice squad.
Once Hunter went down in the second half on Sunday, Dixon was used as a tailback for select packages. The third-year player, who is also a core special teams contributor, could also have a bigger role on offense going forward.
"He was having a good year," Dixon said of Hunter. "Kendall, he's important to us. I really feed off of him because of his running style -- he runs hard, he's a good runner. I learned from him and we all learn from each other so to see him go down is like losing one of your brothers. We just got to pick up for him."
Something has to change with the gameplan for the 49ers backfield now that Hunter is gone. The duo of Hunter and Gore accounted for more than 90 percent of 49ers rushing attempts among non-quarterbacks this year, while Dixon (12), Jacobs (1) and James (0) have combined for just 13 carries all year.
That doesn't mean the trio of running backs hasn't been practicing hard behind the scenes. Players and coaches alike have commended Dixon, Jacobs and James for their diligence on the practice field and in the film room throughout the season.
Dixon faced an uphill battle to make the roster after the team added Jacobs and James in the offseason, but was able to keep his spot by showing his value on offense and special teams. As tough as it is to see Hunter lost for the season, Dixon has been working toward this opportunity since last year's loss in the NFC Title game to New York.
"The offseason, man, it was my toughest ever," Dixon said. "I busted my tail. That last game against the Giants, you hit the offseason with a taste like that, there's really nothing more to be said than to be, like, 'Next year we're coming home with it.'"
Up next, the 49ers will head to St. Louis for a Sunday matchup with their NFC West foe, following the 24-24 tie between the two teams at Candlestick Park in Week 10.
"They played us hard," Gore said. "We know going in there is going to be tough. We've got to do what we didn't do the first time we played them – start fast. And once we start fast we've got to keep our foot on the gas."