There's a lot on the line for the San Francisco 49ers heading into Week 14. Hopes to salvage their turbulent season lies in Sunday's matchup against the 5-7 Washington Football Team, who is looking to keep pace atop the NFC East.
To discuss the NFC matchup, 49ers.com is joined by Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee. Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and has been with the Sacramento Bee for two seasons. Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:
Biggest Storyline Heading into Week 14
@KeianaMartinTV – 49ers Control Their Own Postseason Fate
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, the 49ers sat at 11-2 with their NFC fate within their own hands. A pandemic, a slew of injuries and a relocation later, the team is on the outside looking in at their playoff hopes. But all is not lost. Despite a 5-7 record, San Francisco sits one game behind the Minnesota Vikings for the seventh seed in the NFC.
Before the 49ers can look ahead, their postseason dreams ride on Sunday's contest against a Washington team that is riding high following a three-game win streak, including an upset over the once-undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a longshot for San Francisco and the team must play flawlessly if there is any chance. But if the 49ers can somehow turn around their rollercoaster season over the final four games (plus a little help from their fellow NFC clubs), the team could add themselves to the postseason mix, and also see the re-emergence of a couple of key starters in return (hint hint George Kittle and Jimmy Garoppolo).
@ChrisBiderman – The Return of Alex Smith
It has to be the return of Alex Smith. Not necessarily because Smith against his former team is a compelling storyline, but because of what Smith has been through just to get back on the field. His leg injury, at one point, was life threatening, and he nearly had the leg amputated. The fact he's back on the football field after 17 surgeries is nothing short of incredible. It's one of the more inspiring stories I can remember.
Not to mention, Washington's offense has been markedly better since Smith became the starter. He took over a team that was 2-6 and has won three straight, including Monday's victory over the previously undefeated Steelers. Players and coaches have said this week that Smith doesn't look all that different from what he did earlier in his career. He's still not going to throw the ball over the field like others, but his short throws and decisive style are going to be difficult for the 49ers to defend. Smith just knows where to go with the ball.
Hearing Smith talk this week on a conference call with reporters left me with a clear takeaway: he would be an outstanding coach if he wanted to go down that road after retiring. He also said he plans on living in the Bay Area after his playing career, so I wonder if Kyle Shanahan will put a bug in his ear about joining his staff at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Position Group You'll Be Eying Closely
@KeianaMartinTV – Defensive Line
San Francisco's defense is coming off of an uninspiring Week 13 performance against the Buffalo Bills, where the unit had no answer for quarterback Josh Allen. Allen managed to pick apart the 49ers defense given the lack of pass rush. San Francisco struggled to keep the quarterback in the pocket, as he was sacked just once on the night, and he effectively was able to connect with open receivers while making a number of off-script plays.
Monday night might have been one of the best quarterback performances the 49ers have faced this season. And more likely than not, the team is eager to erase that outing from their memory, which begs the question, how does the defense rebound in Week 14? Well for starters, Alex Smith is no Josh Allen. Smith's mobility isn't what it used to be considering his career-threatening injury just two seasons ago. That is coupled with a Washington offensive line that has yielded 18 sacks over Smith's last six games. The unit is ranked 27th in pass protection and averaging 324.7 total yards per game, the seventh-fewest in the NFL. Could Week 14 have the makings of a bounce-back game for San Francisco's defense? That has yet to be told. But if the team has any hopes of slowing down Smith, who is spearheading Washington's three-game win streak, they'll need a 180 degree performance from Monday night.
@ChrisBiderman – Offensive Line
How the 49ers offensive line plays against Washington's loaded defensive front will go a long way towards deciding the outcome. San Francisco has not run the ball well recently, averaging just over 3.0 yards per carry in the last five games. Some of that has to do with health. Raheem Mostert said this week that his high ankle sprain isn't 100 percent and he'll likely be playing through pain for the rest of the season. I can imagine Jeff Wilson Jr., who's also coming off a high ankle sprain, is going through something similar.
And despite running for only 86 yards Monday against the Bills, Shanahan said he thought the running game had one of its best performances of the season from a blocking perspective. We all know how important the running game is to the overall success of the offense, so it will be interesting to see if the 49ers can have an effective ground game against a team that ranks 10th in the NFL against the run. Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne, Chase Young, Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan will be tough for the 49ers O-line to move around.
Key Statistic for a 49ers Win
@KeianaMartinTV – Winning the Turnover Battle
Both Biderman and I are on the same page with this one. Ball protection has been a headache for the 49ers in recent weeks. The 49ers have six-straight games with two-or-more giveaways, the team's longest such streak since an eight-game span from Weeks 4-12 in 2008 where the team finished 7-9.
Nick Mullens has committed 11 turnovers over San Francisco's last eight contests (nine interceptions and two fumbles), albeit, not all are solely his fault. Both he and Kyle Shanahan have said that negating those costly mistakes have been a point of emphasis, which will be crucial if the turnover battle dictates the remainder of the 49ers season.
@ChrisBiderman – Takeaways, not Giveaways
The 49ers during their 1-4 stretch have turned the ball over 13 times and forced seven takeaways, with four coming in the victory over the Rams. Call me Captain Obvious, but San Francisco is going to have to protect the ball against a ferocious pass rush and force takeaways if they're going to get back in the win column and keep their unlikely playoff hopes alive.
I think the 49ers will have to be on the positive side of the turnover ratio if they're going to beat Washington. That starts with protecting Mullens, who will have to make good decisions and hope his receivers don't give any gifts to the defense, like Brandon Aiyuk's dropped pass leading to pick on Monday.
@KeianaMartinTV – 49ers Top 130 Yards Rushing
Last year, San Francisco boasted one of the league's top rushing attacks, averaging over 144 yards per game and a league-leading 23 touchdowns. Things have certainly changed in 2020 as San Francisco is averaging under 110 rushing yards per game and 16 scores through 13 weeks.
The 49ers run game has slowed down even more as of late, having topped 100 yards just once over their last five contests, which came during their only victory during that span (Los Angeles Rams – 112 rushing yards). It's no secret that when the 49ers ground game gets going, the entire offense seems to click. Sunday marks the third time this season that Shanahan will have his entire stable of running backs available in a single game. A healthy-ish group of backs should be able to carry the load on Sunday and get their ground game back on track.
@ChrisBiderman – 49ers Defense Limits Washington to 17 Points or Fewer
Robert Saleh's crew had no answers for Josh Allen last week. Zone coverage, blitzes, man-to-man, none of it worked while Allen had one of his best games as a pro. Smith is clearly on the other end of the quarterback spectrum in terms of athleticism and his ability to make explosive plays outside the pocket. The 49ers should be able to keep Smith contained more easily than Allen, which could lead to more sack opportunities for Kerry Hyder Jr. , Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw.
Armstead, in particular, fielded questions about his low sack total this season (just 1.5 sacks) after being named the team's NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. I'd imagine that talk will provide plenty of fuel to get him back in the sack column. He last recorded a half sack all the way back to Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Additionally, Washington will be without its top running back, Antonio Gibson, who leads the team with 659 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns (no other player has more than five). That should bode well for San Francisco's defense.
Will that be enough to win the game? It depends on how Mullens and the offense respond. But it's shaping up to be a favorable matchup after the 49ers defense was torched on Monday.