The fate of the 49ers season seemingly lies in Sunday's Week 14 matchup against the Washington Football Team. There are a number of storylines heading into Sunday, including what's at stake for both teams in the NFC playoff race. Here are five things to watch for against Washington.
Kyle Shanahan has stressed the importance of winning the turnover battle, especially when it comes to being on the victorious side of ball games. Ball protection, or lack thereof, has been a glaring issue for San Francisco as of late. The 49ers have 22 giveaways this season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. The team has given the ball away two-or-more times in a single game in six-straight contests, dating back to Week 7, the team's longest such streak since an eight-game span from Weeks 4-12 of the 2008 season.
Nick Mullens has thrown nine interceptions and lost two fumbles over his last eight contests, something the backup quarterback said has been a focus for the offense. Improved ball security will be critical for the 49ers to earn their first "home" win at State Farm Stadium, as well as how San Francisco will fare down the stretch of the season.
Alex Smith's Homecoming
The Football Team is on a roll following a three-game win streak, including an upset over the formerly undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. While Washington boasts a Top 5 defense, a part of their success is due to the performance of former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins began the 2020 season as the starter for Washington before getting benched for third-year quarterback, Kyle Allen. Allen was placed on Injured Reserve following a season-ending leg injury, opening the door for Smith in Week 9.
According to NFL Media Research, Washington has been far more effective offensively with Smith in the lineup. Since Week 9, the Football Team is averaging 26.2 points per game (19.0 Weeks 1-8), 369.4 yards per game (292.7) and 266 passing yards per game (192.6).
What's most notable about his performance is his remarkable comeback from a devastating leg injury that threatened not only his football career, but his life while undergoing 17 operations in the process.
Sunday will mark Smith's second-career game against the 49ers, who drafted him first-overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. His first meeting came in Week 4 of the 2014 season with the Kansas City Chiefs as the quarterback completed 16-of-30 passes for 158 pass yards, one touchdown and one interception in the 22-17 loss.
Not only is Smith facing his former team but 49ers left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Jordan Reed will line up across from their former defense for the first time in their careers - not to mention Shanahan spent four seasons as the offensive coordinator in Washington. Reed signed with the 49ers this offseason after spending the past seven seasons in Washington. His time came to an end after suffering a concussion in 2019 that forced him to miss the entirety of the season.
Williams also missed the 2019 campaign following a dispute with Washington's front office. He was dealt to the 49ers in a draft day trade with Washington in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round and 2021 third-round pick. After ten-total seasons, nine active, the left tackle isn't harboring any negative feelings heading into Sunday.
"I won't sit here and hold grudges for no reason," Williams said on Thursday. "The people I had an issue with, they're not there. The people who helped instigate the situation are no longer a part of the organization. I'm not going to sit here and carry some grudge because people expect me to carry it."
First Round Talent
Parallels have been drawn between the 49ers defensive line and Washington's guys up front. According to NFL Media Research, Sunday marks the first matchup in the common draft era between two teams that each have five-plus first round defensive linemen on their roster. All five of Washington's first rounders are expected to play on Sunday. Unfortunately for San Francisco, four of their six are currently on Injured Reserve. (Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and Ezekiel Ansah).
Washington has seen a vast improvement in their defense from last season. The unit sits in the top five in the league in total yards per game (310.9), passing yards (203.8) and opponent red zone scoring percentage (47.1). The Football Team's defensive line is tied for third in the league with 36 sacks, with all five of their first round pass rushers having at least one sack on the season (Montez Sweat - 6.0, Ryan Kerrigan - 5.5, Chase Young - 4.5, Jonathan Allen - 2.0 and Da'Ron Payne - 1.0)
Not Over Yet
Despite San Francisco's disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, not all is lost for the 49ers 2020 season. The team currently sits one game out of the seventh seed in the NFC. Beginning this year, the NFL expanded the number of teams from each conference to seven teams, creating more competition for those teams in the hunt. The seventh spot is currently being occupied by the 6-6 Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers fate lies in their own hands, which begins with Washington on Sunday.