Notebook: 49ers beef up their offensive backfield
At 330 pounds, Isaac Sopoaga is big enough to handle multiple nicknames. Teammates call him "Soupy," "Chief," "Ice" and "Big Ike," to name a few.
Now, he can add new nickname to the list: Refrigerator II.
The 49ers defensive tackle lined up as a fullback twice Sunday in the late stages of a 17-9 victory over the Raiders, evoking memories of William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the Chicago Bears defensive tackle (and Mike Singletary teammate) who gained fame as a short-yardage specialist in 1985.
Sopoaga didn't carry the ball, but his mere presence on offense created a stir.
"Guys were just laughing," he recalled Monday. "They were like, 'I can't believe you're in this huddle.' "
Laughing in the huddle? That scene best typified the 49ers' sense of relief as they wrapped up their first victory of an otherwise angst-filled season.
Sopoaga's presence also showed the willingness of new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson to add a few wrinkles to a previously predictable offense. The results were less than astonishing -- the 49ers had 349 total yards, just a tick above their season average -- but at least they provided a few more things for the Carolina Panthers (0-5) to think about Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.
There were more designed rollouts and bootlegs by quarterback Alex Smith, who had an 87.4 passer rating and played his first turnover-free game this season. The 49ers also were able to get the ball deeper downfield to Michael Crabtree.
"I'm just trying to be a complete receiver and do it all, inside and outside," Crabtree said a day after registering a 32-yard touchdown catch for the 49ers' longest score of the season. "So whatever Coach got for me, I'm there."
As for their hulking new part-time fullback, Singletary said he suggested using Sopoaga in short-yardage situations to previous offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye as far back as training camp.
Sopoaga has practiced the role occasionally but didn't make his debut on offense until there was 2:08 remaining Sunday. The 49ers faced a second-and-8 and needed a first down to run out the clock. Sopoaga served as a blocker for Frank Gore's 6-yard gain, then again on Gore's 3-yarder that followed.
It was the same play both times -- "30 Ice."
"I was really pumped to see Ike get in there and blow someone up," Crabtree said. "Even at practice, I've been hyping him up. He's crazy."
Singletary said Sopoaga's role on offense owes its roots to the 49ers, not the Bears. He recalled that innovation of using a defender as a blocker came from Bill Walsh, who unleashed guard Guy McIntyre as a fullback against the Bears in the 1984 NFC championship game.
Mike Ditka, who was then the Bears' coach, copied the idea. He used the same formation with the 335-pound Perry.
Sopoaga said he has never heard of "The Fridge." But he likes the idea of following in his mammoth footsteps. After all, Perry once scored two touchdowns in a game.
"Yes, I've been wanting to run the ball so bad," Sopoaga said. "I've got to be smart. Pay attention to what part of the job they offered me to do on the field. But down the line, my arms will be carrying the ball. I'll cross my fingers."
Even in victory, the 49ers endured a mistake-filled day. Among the more glaring problems was sending out only nine players for a field-goal try. The 49ers were forced to call a timeout and, on second thought, dispatched the punt unit.
Singletary said the breakdown happened because the coaching staff failed to properly communicate.
"As coaches, we have to do a better job knowing that we have rookies, a lot of rookies, on our special teams and just making sure that everybody is on the same page," Singletary said. "And we'll do better with that."
Talking in general terms, not about Merriman in particular, Singletary addressed whether his outside linebackers could benefit from the addition of a veteran.
"If there's something out there that makes you better, you're always going to look at it, but I like our guys right now," he said.
Tight end Vernon Davis was scheduled for a precautionary MRI exam on his knee. Davis was shaken up after his 17-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter but returned to the game.
"We just want to make sure we're smart about it and get the MRI and make sure everything's stable," Singletary said.
All of the other injured players from Monday's game were listed as day to day: cornerback Nate Clements (leg contusion), linebacker Manny Lawson (rib contusion), receiver Josh Morgan (thigh contusion), linebacker Parys Haralson (calf bruise) and defensive end Justin Smith (hand laceration).
Safety Curtis Taylor, who suffered a torn quadriceps against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 10, was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Safety Chris Maragos was promoted from the practice squad.
The 49ers remained miffed about an intentional grounding call from Sunday's game. Officials flagged Smith after his throw sailed far over the head of his intended target, Josh Morgan. Smith was not being pressured.
Asked if he would reach out to the league for clarification, Singletary said: "We're going to reach with very firm arms and try to get an idea what the heck is the rule, because I'm a little bit perplexed on that now."