Can San Francisco keep the momentum going while being shorthanded against a hungry New York Giants team looking for their first win of the season? That's the question most 49ers fans are asking ahead of Sunday's Week 3 matchup, as the team is dealing with a number of injuries and new faces filling key roles. FOX play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt, who is calling Sunday's game, joined 49ers.com to give his take on four pressing topics ahead of the NFC showdown.
With that, here are the 49ers "Four Downs" previewing of San Francisco's upcoming road match.
1st Down: Biggest Story Line Heading into Week 3
@KeianaMartinTV: Can the Offense Click with Nick Mullens at the Helm?
Kyle Shanahan revealed on Friday that Jimmy Garoppolo is officially ruled OUT while he continues to work his way back from a high-ankle sprain. That means Nick Mullens is in line to get his first start since Dec. of 2018. Signed as an undrafted rookie out of Southern Mississippi, Mullens started eight games for San Francisco in 2018, and completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,277 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a 90.9 passer rating. The 49ers have spent the week preparing Mullens for his first start in nearly 21 months and building rapport with San Francisco's pass catchers. It will be important for both parties to be in sync as the Giants defense has allowed just 377 yards through the air over the first two weeks of the season, the second-fewest passing yards allowed in the NFL.
Teammates like Trent Williams, Ben Garland and George Kittle (who in addition to Garoppolo was also ruled OUT for Sunday) have noted their confidence in the 49ers backup and cited his work ethic and focus even prior to stepping in for Garoppolo in the second half of the Week 2 win. Last week, he completed 8-of-11 passes (72.7 percent) for 71 yards. In his first meeting against the Giants in Week 10 of the 2018 season, he passed for 250 yards and a touchdown to two interceptions. Mullens has registered 250-plus passing yards in 6-of-8 of his career starts and aims for his third road start in a row with 275-plus passing yards and two-plus touchdown passes.
Mullens believes his grasp of Kyle Shanahan's offense has only continued to develop in his fourth year in San Francisco. The quarterback said there are "no excuses" to why he shouldn't be able to perform on Sunday.
@KevinBurkhardt: 49ers Are Built with Depth to Withstand Injuries
The biggest storyline is "where is everybody?" It's truly unbelievable. The thing is, this team has dealt with this before and a lot of people forget that last year they went through a stretch where they had big injuries: Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk and their tackles all out, and learning how to navigate that and get through that. They obviously lost people on the defensive line last year too. But not like this. Losing Nick Bosa is a big deal. That's a game changer. You cannot replace him.
But I think they are built with enough depth to withstand this. Are they going to be as good defensively and offensively, especially with Jimmy G likely out? There's no way, but I think you find different ways to win the game, and I think they have enough depth where they can do that. The experience of being in that spot where you're playing without big players, which they've done, that helps too.
2nd Down: Who Must Step Up with the Number of Injuries
@KeianaMartinTV: Kerry Hyder
It's going to take more than just one person to help supplement the recent losses along the defensive line. San Francisco is without both Bosa and Solomon Thomas for the year and will be without Dee Ford, who is sidelined with a worrisome back injury. The 49ers brought in veteran pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah to help alleviate some of the losses along the D-line.
Fans are excited to see if Ansah can replicate his 2015 Pro Bowl campaign where he amassed a career-high 14.5 sacks and 34 quarterback hits with now-49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and the Detroit Lions. But Kerry Hyder Jr. is another name to keep an eye out for. Hyder was signed by the 49ers back in March to help bolster their defensive line, and through two weeks, he's began exceeding expectations. Like Ansah, Hyder also spent time under Kocurek during his time in Detroit where he had his most productive season, leading the Lions with eight sacks in 2016.
New York ranks second in the league in pressures allowed, and quarterback Daniel Jones has been sacked seven times, tied for the second-most in the NFL. Opposing defenses have notched four takeaways over the last two weeks (three interceptions, one fumble). San Francisco's D-line can shed any pessimism in this pass-rush friendly matchup against the Giants offensive line.
@KevinBurkhardt: Fred Warner
Defensively, I love Fred Warner. He had a great year last year and kept getting better and better. There's even more pressure on him now because they're not going to have the same pass rush. They're going to probably have some guys play out of position. Are they going to have the same pass rush up front? No. So, right now, I think a lot is on the shoulders of Fred Warner to keep things together on that front.
As far as offensively, when you're playing without your quarterback and you're playing without arguably the best tight end in the world and you're still without Deebo Samuel, there's a lot going on there. So, it will be kind of fun to watch Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson Jr. this week. Obviously we know what McKinnon has done. Wilson had big moments for the 49ers last year. Raheem Mostert has been playing on a different level for the last year. But I really kind of like the two backs they're going into Sunday with and I think they'll both produce.
3rd Down: Member of the Giants to Key in On
@KeianaMartinTV: Darius Slayton
With Saquon Barkley (ACL) and Sterling Shepard (toe) out, the Giants are without two of their home run hitters on offense. Those injuries make way for Darius Slayton, Golden Tate and Evan Engram to step up on offense moving forward. Slayton was second on the team with six targets during their Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears, and is likely to see more looks on Sunday. As mentioned above, it will be imperative for the 49ers to create pressure to limit Slayton's opportunities, especially with Richard Sherman (calf) sidelined for another couple of weeks.
Engram is another name. He's a tight end, and the Giants lined him up all over the field last week against the Bears. Defending the fourth-year tight end could pose a matchup problem for San Francisco's defense.
@KevinBurkhardt: Daniel Jones
It's really about Daniel Jones. Their first-round draft pick and second-year quarterback has had some really good moments. But, for him, that's what it is, it's moments. Like a lot of young quarterbacks, he can't put it together. His big issue is that he's a turnover machine. A lot of young quarterbacks have been that in their start. It's common, but not necessarily at the rate that he's turning it over. He's had exactly one game in his short career with zero turnovers. That's not good. He's got the ability. He's had some big games for them. Four-plus touchdown games, he has done it three times. So, if the 49ers get to him and cause those turnovers, they're likely going to win. But he has the ability to break out and he can run. So, I think again, that's where Fred Warner comes in. He's got those legs. Without Saquon Barkley, I expect them to use that more with him, especially on a third down. So that's why I think that's a big matchup.
4th Down: Key Stat to a 49ers Victory
@KeianaMartinTV: Rushing Offense
If I would have told you at the beginning of the year that the 49ers starting running backs were McKinnon and Wilson Jr., no one might have believed me. But here we are. The 49ers enter Week 3 without Mostert and Tevin Coleman, who will both miss time with various knee injuries. But both McKinnon and Wilson Jr. are proven backs in Shanahan's offense. Through two games, McKinnon has racked up 121 yards from scrimmage on nine touches and two scores. We've witnessed Wilson Jr.'s abilities to step up in big moments as well dating back to last season.
Entering Sunday, the 49ers have excelled in creating open run lanes as San Francisco's rotation of running backs lead the NFL averaging 3.6 rushing yards before contact. The team is also second in the league averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The Giants enter Week 3 with a 24th-ranked rushing defense, allowing an average of 138 yards per game. Also, a fun fact: McKinnon has garnered 192 scrimmage yards (96 per game) and three rushing touchdowns in his two career games against New York. He aims for his third game in row against the Giants with 95-plus scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. San Francisco's backfield might look radically different in Week 3, but the production should remain constant.
@KevinBurkhardt: Rushing Defense
The Giants offensive line has had real issues, and they have allowed the third-most hits to a running back behind the line of scrimmage. That is a big problem. Even before Saquon got hurt, he had no room to run. The 49ers have to keep that up. They have to keep the pressure on Jones, even with all the reserves and the guys being called up and Ziggy being signed. They've got to keep that pressure on that line, which quite honestly, has not performed well. If they can do that, they're going to win the game. If all of a sudden Daniel Jones gets the time to throw, I think it's going to be a very interesting ballgame.