Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 15 of the 2015 regular season, when the 49ers will look to bounce back from a loss to the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.
1st Down: Which 49ers defender will have a big game?
@Joe_Fann: Aaron Lynch
The 49ers missed Lynch last Sunday against the Browns and will need him in a big way against the Bengals. Cincinnati has only allowed 23 sacks this season, which is part of the reason why its offense has been so successful. With AJ McCarron making his first career start, it's important for the 49ers to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. McCarron threw for 280 yards last week against the Steelers and is not afraid to send it downfield. A consistent pass rush will also help the 49ers secondary keep A.J. Green at bay.
@TylerEmerick: Ian Williams
With Andy Dalton sidelined and McCarron making his first career start, expect the Bengals to rely heavily on their ground attack to take pressure off their backup quarterback. Cincinnati has scored the third-most rushing touchdowns in the league so far (14), so it'll be up to San Francisco's defensive front to stop the run and make the Bengals win with McCarron. Everyone knows the force Williams has become in the middle of the 49ers defensive line, and I see him having a busy day on Sunday.
@TaylorPrice: Tramaine Brock
I have a feeling that Green will be targeted a lot on Sunday. Actually, Green has been targeted 115 times this season, so Week 15 should be no different. With a heavy amount of passes being thrown his way, look for Brock to record a takeaway and spark the 49ers defense, which has allowed a total of 95 points in six games at Levi's® Stadium this year.
2nd Down: More concerning, Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard?
Cincinnati's versatile ball-carrier is averaging 5.1 yards per carry on the ground and 10.3 yards per reception in 2015 – both of which are career highs. Compare those numbers to Hill – 3.6 yards per carry and 5.6 yards per reception – and the choice becomes clear that Bernard has been the more dangerous of the two this season. There have been times during the year when 49ers linebackers have struggled to stay with running backs in pass coverage and Bernard will provide another test in that area.
I'll go with the fantasy football answer here and take Hill. While Bernard has been the more productive player in terms of yards, Hill finds the end zone more. He has scored nine times this year, the second most on the team behind Tyler Eifert's 12 touchdowns. Eifert will miss Sunday's game due to a concussion, so the Bengals will be without their top red-zone target. That means Hill will be the guy to stop when and if Cincinnati gets to the goal line. Let's see if San Francisco can stymie the 6-foot-1, 235-pound bruiser.
Hill has proven to be the goal-line runner for the Bengals, but Bernard has been dangerous in both the run and passing game. Bernard averages 5.1 yards per carry compared to 3.6 yards per rush from Hill. Plus, don't forget Bernard's 40 catches for 413 yards. He'll be a nice safety valve for McCarron, so you have to keep No. 25 in your sights.
3rd Down: The 49ers position group to watch is...
@Joe_Fann: Offensive Line
Everyone on offense took a piece of the blame for allowing nine sacks against the Browns in Week 14. San Francisco has now allowed more sacks, 45, than any other team this season. The group will remain under a microscope as it looks to replace Alex Boone (knee) at left guard. Marcus Martin is the bet to fill that void while Daniel Kilgore should make his first start at center. The o-line will have their hands full with the talented pass-rushing duo of Carter Dunlap and Geno Atkins, who have combined for 18.5 sacks this season.
@TylerEmerick: Tight ends
In Blaine Gabbert's first four starts with the 49ers, the quarterback connected with his tight ends 22 times for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Last week in Cleveland, however, the position group totaled just four catches for 53 yards and no scores. The 49ers were without Garrett Celek (ankle) and Garrett Celek (concussion) for that game, so Blake Bell and Brian Leonhardt were thrust into a larger role. Celek is out for the season, but San Francisco will likely get McDonald back versus the Bengals. That should be huge for Gabbert, who seems to have developed a terrific report with the tight ends. Cincinnati has only surrendered one touchdown to opposing tight ends this year. Look for that to change on Sunday.
@TaylorPrice: Outside Linebackers
The Bengals have allowed 23 sacks this season, which is tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL this season. If Lynch is cleared from the NFL's concussion protocol after missing the team's loss in Cleveland, the 49ers will need their second-year pass-rusher to be unleashed on a young quarterback. Ahmad Brooks, too, will have extra motivation against a team that released him in 2008.
4th Down: The 49ers skill player who will make an explosive play is...
@Joe_Fann: Shaun Draughn
San Francisco is overdue for a splash play in the running game. Draughn has yet to top his 58-yard rushing performance in his 49ers debut against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9 win. Draughn is averaging north of 18 touches per game, so the opportunity will be there for the ball-carrier to leave his stamp on Sunday's game. Whether it's on a screen pass or a run play, I think it's San Francisco's starting running back who will break loose at some point.
@TylerEmerick: Bruce Ellington
The 49ers have not returned a kick or punt for a touchdown since 2011, when Ted Ginn Jr. scored on one of each. Last week against the Browns, Ellington delivered the longest punt return of his young career (36 yards). His best kickoff return thus far went for 40 yards. Ellington certainly has the explosiveness to break one. It's just about everything coming together on one specific play to make it happen. One of these momentum-shifters certainly would help San Francisco's chances of pulling off the upset.
@TaylorPrice: Torrey Smith
We've seen a trio of 70-plus yard catches from the 49ers top free-agent acquisition. Cincinnati's defense competes on the back end, allowing 243 passing yards per game (17th overall in the league), but that doesn't mean that Gabbert and Co. can't launch a few deep balls to Smith, who has faced the Bengals regularly from his days with the Baltimore Ravens.