The second half of the season begins on Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers with a Week 9 home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
At 2-6 and losers of two straight, the 49ers are desperate for a win going into their Week 10 bye.
Atlanta enters the game with a 6-2 record, but the Falcons have been sputtering as of late. The Falcons have lost two of their last three contests with a narrow, 10-7 victory against the Tennessee Titans sandwiched in between losses to the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It will be a new-look San Francisco team that takes the field on Sunday, at least from an offensive standpoint.
Decade-long 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has been traded to the Denver Broncos, and Blaine Gabbert has been inserted into the starting lineup in place of Colin Kaepernick.
With that, here are the top five things to watch in Week 9. 1. Gabbert's first start in San Francisco
The start will be Gabbert's first since 2013. The former 10th-overall pick in 2011 is ready to prove that his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars will not be the defining legacy of his career. Gabbert has been praised throughout the week by 49ers players and coaches alike for his professionalism the last two seasons as the team's backup signal-caller. The quarterback's play in the preseason and in practice has warranted the opportunity.
During the team's four exhibition games this year, Gabbert completed 82.1 percent of his passes for 203 yards and one touchdown. The quarterback will aim for similar success against the Falcons.
2. The 49ers three-headed backfield
With Pierre Garçon (foot) out against the Falcons, that means the 49ers will deploy a running back by committee consisting of Kendall Gaskins, Pierre Thomas and Shaun Draughn.
All three are expected to get touches. What remains a mystery is how those reps will be divided.
The amount of playing time for Thomas and Draughn will depend on their ability to get up to speed with the game plan. For two guys who have plenty of NFL experience, that shouldn't be a problem.
Gaskins ran the ball five times for six yards against the St. Louis Rams in his NFL debut last week while adding two receptions for 17 yards.
3. Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones
Not to over simplify the Falcons offense, but a majority of its production comes from these two skill players. Freeman has at least 19 touches in his last six games and Jones ranks second in the NFL in targets with 103.
The high usage has turned into league-leading production for both playmakers.
Freeman leads all NFL running backs with 709 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Jones tops the league with 70 receptions and 892 receiving yards and is second in touchdowns with six.
The 49ers defense will need to key on those two throughout the game if they want to keep the Falcons offense in check.
4. Changes along the offensive line?
Jim Tomsula hinted that making the swap at quarterback wouldn't be the only personnel change made going into the Falcons game. Most of the speculation is that the other possible adjustments to the lineup would be along the offensive line.
The 49ers have allowed 28 sacks through eight games, an average of 3.5 per contest.
Andrew Tiller has been getting increased playing time at right guard in place of Jordan Devey. Rookies Ian Silberman and Trent Brown would be a few of the options to be mixed into the lineup.
5. The inactive list
San Francisco has a laundry list of injuries worth monitoring until kickoff.
In addition to Hyde being out, wide receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) is doubtful to play.
Cornerback Kenneth Acker (chest, concussion), cornerback Keith Reaser (ankle), cornerback Tramaine Brock (shin) and tight end Garrett Celek (concussion) are all listed as questionable.
Six other players are probable for Sunday's game.
With Acker, Reaser and Brock all listed as questionable, all eyes will be on who starts at cornerback for the 49ers.