Week 14 features two teams who are looking to bounce back following disappointing outings and remain relevant in postseason conversations. The NFC seventh-seed San Francisco 49ers are set to hit the road to take on the AFC sixth-seed Cincinnati Bengals in a game that could have plenty of implications on where each team stands heading into the final stretch of the season.
This week, 49ers.com is previewing Sunday's contest with Bengals beat reporter Kelsey Conway of Enquirer Sports. Here are this week's Four Downs:
1st Down: What Went Wrong in Week 13?
@KeianaMartinTV: Turnovers and Penalties
Simply put, mistakes cost the 49ers in what would have been their fourth-straight win. San Francisco managed to play clean ball during their streak, committing just one giveaway to six takeaways, but Sunday was a completely different story. San Francisco managed to turn the ball over three times, including a fumble on a kickoff return that gave the Seattle Seahawks the ball inside their own territory.
Just as challenging as it is to overcome losing the turnover battle, it's nearly as difficult to win games when penalties aren't playing in your favor. On drives where the offense appeared to be moving down field, the unit was halted due to several false starts and holding calls. Defensively, two roughing the passer penalties and pass interference calls added to Seattle scores as well as a free 86 yards for the Seahawks.
The 49ers were penalized a total of 10 times on Sunday, compared to Seattle's six, the most they have been flagged this season. And the team's 86 yards given up due to penalties are their second most this season. These mistakes helped dictate the direction of the game, and have to be a point of emphasis going forward if the 49ers want to get back to playing how they were just a few weeks back.
@KelseyLConway: Allowing Too Many Explosive Plays
The Bengals allowed too many explosive plays on defense in the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. It was an uncharacteristic performance of the group as they've been very good at not allowing big plays to occur. The offense clawed its way back but the Bengals made too many mistakes and gave the Chargers the ball back far too often. Joe Mixon fumbled on a play he makes nearly every week and one of Joe Burrow's interceptions was due to Ja'Marr Chase not catching a ball that would have been a touchdown. Cincinnati was just off from the beginning of the game and the Chargers came out swinging.
2nd Down: An Underrated Player Who Could be Key in Week 14
@KeianaMartinTV: LB Azeez Al-Shaair
If he started off underrated, Azeez Al-Shaair is certainly starting to garner some buzz. The former undrafted linebacker stepped in for Fred Warner (hamstring) last week and arguably had the best performance of his career. Al-Shaair led San Francisco's defense with 16 tackles (11 solo), 0.5 sacks, eight-total stops, a forced fumble and almost notched a near-interception against the Seahawks in Week 13. He also allowed just 37 receiving yards in coverage on his nine targets on the day. He will be leaned on heavily again with Dre Greenlaw (groin) still held out of practice this week. But notably, he and Warner will be preparing for a lethal Cincinnati offense that features Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon.
@KelseyLConway: DT D.J. Reader
Defensive tackle D.J. Reader has been outstanding this season for the Bengals. He's been so good against the run and Cincinnati's run defense is a top-10 unit largely because of his play. Reader signed with the Bengals in free agency last season but didn't get to show what he can do because of a season-ending injury suffered early in the 2020 season. Healthy and ready to prove he is worth the investment the Bengals made, Reader is playing as good as any interior defensive lineman in the run game. With how much the 49ers want to run the ball and how effective they've been in doing so, Reader's role in the game will likely be huge.
3rd Down: Area of Concern Heading into Sunday
@KeianaMartinTV: Running Back Depth
Just when the 49ers had a healthy stable of ball carriers, things quickly changed. Elijah Mitchell briefly left Sunday's game after suffering a head injury. Despite being re-evaluated postgame, Mitchell experienced symptoms on Monday morning, placing him back in the concussion protocol. An MRI showed knee irritation for the running back, a new injury that has also held him out of practice this week.
Fellow running back Jeff Wilson Jr. experienced a "flare up" on his surgically repaired meniscus on Sunday and has been a limited participant this week. Fellow backup Trenton Cannon is also in the concussion protocol after being released from the hospital on Monday after the scary scene to open the game. That leaves JaMycal Hasty and recently signed free agent back Brian Hill as the lone healthy ball carriers heading into the weekend. Hasty is a week removed from returning from a lingering ankle injury and played just one snap on offense on Sunday. Hill, who Kyle Shanahan said has played in similar schemes, will have a week's worth of practice to get caught up to speed.
While being without Mitchell is a huge loss for San Francisco, the team is still banking on the return of do-it-all playmaker Deebo Samuel. Should Samuel make his return to the field, the 49ers should add a significant boost to their air and rushing attack.
For the first time this season, the injury bug has hit the Bengals. The team is already going to be without middle linebacker Logan Wilson and it's unclear if their top cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, will be able to go as he's not expected to practice much if any this week with a foot injury. Cincinnati is going to get back two of their offensive line starters in Trey Hopkins and Riley Reiff after being without their services against the Chargers. Wide receiver Tee Higgins also didn't practice on Wednesday. Several key starters appear to be injured for the Bengals and it's something to monitor ahead of Sunday's game.
4th Down: Biggest Strength Heading into Week 14
@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Pass Rush vs. Bengals Offensive Line
While there's been plenty of praise over Cincinnati's high-powered offense, it hasn't all been glitz and glam. Over the last four games, quarterback Joe Burrow has notched just three touchdowns to five interceptions. Some of that comes at the expense of their offensive line's struggles. Last week against the Chargers, the quarterback was hit 11 times, including a whopping six sacks.
Insert 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa
Bosa is having a fantastic year considering what the pass rusher is returning from. He's amassed 12 sacks so far this season and has notched at least one in five of the 49ers past six games. San Francisco's defense as a whole is coming off of an outing where Russell Wilson was hit eight times and sacked on four of them.
While the Bengals might have a scary group of offensive weapons, that won't mean much if San Francisco's pass rush can find a way to neutralize Bosa's good friend, Burrow.
@KelseyLConway: The Play of Cincinnati's Wide Receivers
If Joe Burrow has time, he's been really sharp and has taken advantage of mismatches with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase. Cincinnati has arguably the best trio of wide receivers and it seems like every week one has a monster day. If the Bengals offensive line can shore up it's protection, Cincinnati's passing game could explode against a banged up 49ers secondary.