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Five Things: 49ers at Bengals

Posted Sep 23, 2011

The 49ers will look for their first win in Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday when they take on the Cincinnati Bengals in their first road game of 2011. All-time, the 49ers have a 10-3 record against the Bengals, including two Super Bowl victories. But in order for both 1-1 teams to get back to the big game, they’ll need a victory first. Here are five things to look for on Sunday.

1. Offensive Output

The 49ers rank 31st in total offense, averaging 207.5 yards per game. The rush offense ranks 26th (79.5 yards per game), while the pass offense ranks 29th (128.0 yards per game). Those statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story with the 49ers offense. The unit has turned the ball over once in two games and has done well in not giving extra possessions to opponents. But still, the 49ers know yardage, points and big plays have to increase. “No question that we have to get better, pass game and run game,” said quarterback Alex Smith, who is 4-3 in his last seven starts with 10 touchdowns (nine passing and one rushing) and two interceptions. Yet, Smith doesn’t want to throw it all around the field just for the sake of putting up eye-popping statistics like other NFL quarterbacks. “Do I want to throw it a ton of times and throw it for so many yards? Like I said, ‘Whatever it takes to get the win,’” said Smith, who is tied for fourth in the league with a 70.5-completion percentage. Even with Smith being able to complete passes at a higher percentage, the offense still needs to sustain drives. Running back Frank Gore is averaging 2.5 yards per carry and the offense has 26 first downs this season, which ranks tied for 30th in the NFL. That could all improve this week against the Bengals, who gave up 19 first downs and 101 rushing yards to Willis McGahee last week in a loss to the Denver Broncos.

2. Familiar Faces, Trading Places

There’s no need for six degrees of separation between the 49ers and Bengals. Across the board, players and coaches have crossed paths throughout their NFL careers. Three 49ers were Bengals. Three Bengals were 49ers. Moreover, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh played quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens in 1998, the same season Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis served as the Ravens defensive coordinator. All the familiarity makes this week’s game even more fascinating. For the 49ers, defensive tackle Justin Smith, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and safety Madieu Williams all donned Cincinnati’s striped helmets. Conversely, the 49ers will face linebacker Manny Lawson, cornerback Nate Clements and safety Taylor Mays, who combined to make 38 starts for San Francisco’s defense last season. “I’m familiar with those guys, so it makes my assignment a little easier,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. “You have to watch the schemes to see what they’re doing. Davis especially knows Clements’ knack for forcing fumbles. “He’s sneaky,” Davis said with a grin.

3. Rattling the Rookie

The 49ers picked a quarterback with the No. 36 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. One spot before Colin Kaepernick was taken, the Bengals selected Andy Dalton. The TCU product has joined Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only rookie quarterbacks since the NFL’s merger in 1970 to put together triple-digit quarterback rating in his first two games. Dalton also set a Bengals rookie record with 332 passing yards in a 24-22 loss to the Denver Broncos last week. And so far, the signal caller has impressed the 49ers in his play. “He’s doing an excellent job right now,” Harbaugh said this week. Dalton has especially been impressive with his quick delivery, according to 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “He’s very efficient,” Fangio said. “He’s got a really good understanding of the game.” Still, the rookie quarterback has been sacked five times this season and the 49ers would like to add to that total as well as their league-leading 10, three-and-outs which they’ve forced already in two games. Helping the defense this week is the return of safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Shawntae Spencer. Both started in all 16 of the team’s games in 2009 and 2010, but have yet to play this season. Goldson has been hampered by a knee injury, while Spencer has been rounding into shape after being limited in the preseason with a hamstring injury. Fangio hasn’t determined the rotation for his defensive backs, but said Goldson and Spencer will play on Sunday.

4. Third Down Efficiency

There’s a reason it’s called the money down. Players and coaches make a living on their successes and failures on third down. Take last Sunday’s loss to Dallas as a perfect example. In the first half, the 49ers picked up 8 of 10 third down conversions while putting together two touchdown drives. In the second half, things changed dramatically as the unit failed to pick a single third down, going 0 for 6. Cincinnati, too, struggled on the key down last week. Although they scored 22 points, the Bengals converted one of 11 third downs. In a Week 1 home victory over the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati picked up 7 of 17 third downs.

5. Ready for the Road

The 49ers will travel to Ohio on Friday, play in Cincinnati on Sunday, and then stay for the entire week in Youngstown, Ohio. Harbaugh said the reason for the trip is two-fold. “Number one, take the air travel out of it, some of the jetlag out of that,” he explained. “Also, I feel like we have a team that enjoys each other’s company. This is a chance for them to be close to each other all week leading up to a big game.” That game will be against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 2. It’s not just coaches how are in favor of the trip, the players are looking forward to it. “I think it’s good for our team,” Gore said. “I think it’ll help our team, help us perform better on the field.” Gore admitted he didn’t know much about Youngstown, but is willing to learn more about it. “I guess I’ll get to know it when I go over there,” he said.

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