The San Francisco 49ers aim to finish out the season strong, which begins in Week 15 against the Dallas Cowboys. Both clubs sit at the bottom of their respective divisions, with faint, but possible chances to sneak their ways into the postseason.
To discuss the Week 15 matchup, 49ers.com is joined by Kyle Posey of NinersNation. Posey has been covering the NFL since 2013 and the 49ers for two seasons. Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:
What Is the Matchup to Watch vs. Cowboys?
@KeianaMartinTV – 49ers Rushing Offense vs. Cowboys Rushing Defense
There might not be a better matchup for San Francisco's run game to find its footing than in Week 15. Dallas has continued to struggle against the run this season, allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 162.7 yards per game, both league highs. Meanwhile, San Francisco owns the 19th-ranked rushing offense which has seen its struggles as of late. The 49ers have topped 100 yards just twice over their past six contests, even while having their full stable of relatively healthy running backs available.
Raheem Mostert has been battling through an ankle injury that he reaggravated in Week 14. The running back acknowledged he likely won't be "100 percent" until after the season, however, is set to play against the Cowboys. Even with Mostert dealing with the lingering effects of a previous ankle injury, the 49ers host of running backs should be able to help carry the load, including Jeff Wilson Jr., who Shanahan said, along with Mostert, the 49ers are focusing on at running back.
@KP_Show – Can the Cowboys contain Aiyuk?
During the past five games, 49ers rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has ascended into the conversation as one of the better wideouts in the NFL. During that span, Aiyuk has averaged just over seven receptions for 96 yards per game. The only two other receivers in the NFL who can say they're doing the same are Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams.
Not too shabby, rook.
Last Sunday against Washington, Aiyuk became the second rookie receiver in franchise history to have ten receptions in a game. The other receiver's name is Jerry Rice, whom you may have heard of.
Speaking of the greatest wide receiver of all-time, Aiyuk has a chance to reach Rice's rookie record. Aiyuk needs 267 receiving yards to catch Rice. What's made Aiyuk's season so special is that his production has come with a backup quarterback throwing him the ball.
Dallas's secondary has struggled this season. Rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs should return for the first time since Week 9, but Diggs allowed five touchdowns in nine games as a starter this season. The Cowboys are in the bottom ten in a few critical advanced statistical categories that measure how good your pass defense is. That bodes well for Aiyuk and the 49ers. The Niners' first-rounder should have a big day.
Which 49ers Player Are You Watching Closely?
I'm going to follow up on Kyle's previous statement and say I'm eyeing how the rookie finishes out his first year in the NFL. Last week against the Washington Football Team, the rookie finished with career-highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (119), marking his second-career game with 100-or-more receiving yards. Over the last eight weeks, Aiyuk's 85.7 receiving grade ranks fourth among wide receivers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kyle discussed Aiyuk's opportunity to surpass Rice's longstanding record. Call me greedy, but I want to see the rookie amass 1,000 yards, which he is currently 340 yards shy of. He would need to average 113 yards per game to surpass this feat and become the first 49ers receiver to do so since Anquan Boldin in 2014 (1,062 yards).
The answer has to be Justin Skule, who will start at right guard for the first time in his career. Tom Compton, who was the initial backup at right guard to start the season, is out with a concussion. Colton McKivitz, who had been rotating with Compton and started two games this season, is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Instead of moving center Daniel Brunskill, who originally started the season at right guard, head coach Kyle Shanahan is electing to start the player who has been in the building the longest at right guard. Shanahan said, "we're going to play the guys that have been out there for us and the guys that the other four are used to playing with."
It's no secret that the 49ers offensive line has struggled this season. Your most recent memory of Skule playing won't help change that perception. I'll be watching to see whether Skule can hold his own. San Francisco won't need Skule to block like Mike Iupati in his prime. Skule just needs to be competent. Penalties and missed blocks at the most inopportune times have cost the line this season. Skule must avoid crucial mistakes in the biggest moments.
What is the Key Statistic for a 49ers Win?
@KeianaMartinTV – Limiting Turnovers
I hate to sound like I'm beating a dead horse, but my answer will continue to be to win the turnover battle. Last week, San Francisco's offense coughed up the ball three times and allowed a whopping 17 points off of those turnovers. While the 49ers defense kept the Washington Football Team out of the end zone for the entirety of the contest, all of their points came by way of defensive touchdowns or field goals.
If you do the math, all San Francisco needed to do was control the ball and we'd be looking at a completely different outcome than what we saw in Week 14. A lot of the responsibility fell on quarterback Nick Mullens. Mullens has thrown at least one interception in seven of his nine games this season and lost three fumbles.
The 49ers have committed two-or-more turnovers in seven-straight contests, equating to a staggering 18 giveaways during that span. The 49ers have the second-most turnovers lost this season (25) only behind the Denver Broncos (29). Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas' defense forced three fumbles, bringing their season total of takeaways to 23. If the 49ers truly wants to finish this season strong, and hold on to their faint chances of reaching the postseason, this is one stat that must be cleaned up, starting Sunday against the Cowboys.
@KP_Show – Rushing Yards
That's the number of running plays the Cowboys have given up over 15 yards this season—which leads the league. It's not as if Dallas's rushing defense has trended in the right direction, as they've allowed 17 explosive rushing plays over the past month, which is the sixth-most in the NFL. There isn't a notable rushing statistic that favors Dallas defensively. In many instances, the Cowboys are 25th or worst.
When you watch the Cowboys defense, they're often out of position. Teams that use motion have given Dallas issues, as too many times they're caught out of their gap at the snap of the ball, which has created running lanes that Shanahan himself could run through. Dallas's issues don't stop there. Per PFF, the Cowboys are averaging over ten missed tackles per game during the past month.
While the focus will be on how Skule plays, Dallas is the perfect "get right" game for a 49ers offense that has struggled mightily as of late. The good news for the Niners is that the Cowboys defense is the definition of a "moveable object."
@KeianaMartinTV – Nick Mullens Throws for 300 Yards and 3 Touchdowns
I'm certain Mullens wants to rid of the memories from the 49ers last two outings and get back to the success San Francisco had in Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams. Albiet, the Buffalo Bills certainly look like one of the top teams in the AFC and Washington's defense is recognized as one of the best in the league. Week 15 provides a different, but still challenging story. The Cowboys currently own the sixth-ranked passing defense, allowing an average of 215 yards per game. Mullens may be without Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, but the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk, which Kyle discussed earlier, should help open up the passing game for San Francisco.
The 49ers have had one 100-yard rusher all season. That's unheard of for a Shanahan-led offense, especially as we're in Week 15. After the 49ers fell behind the past two weeks, they've had to get away from what the offense does best: run the ball. In the past two games, Mostert, who is "good to go," per Shanahan, has 23 carries for 107 yards. Six of those have gone for first downs, and another three have gone for over ten yards. This game has Mostert breaking out all over it. My bold prediction is that we'll see a lot of surfing in the end zone Sunday as Mostert rushes for over 120 yards.