Four Downs

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Four Downs: Expectations for Nick Mullens in Second Start vs. Eagles

The San Francisco 49ers took many by surprise in Week 3 by putting up a dominant performance against the New York Giants while being undermanned with multiple players out with injuries. Still without several key starters, the team looks to put up an encore performance as San Francisco returns home to Levi's® Stadium to host the 0-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles on primetime on "Sunday Night Football."

The 49ers are excited to be joined all season long by San Francisco native, Anthony Garcia, associate producer and co-host of Triples Alley and Armchair Quarterback on NBC Sports Bay Area. Catch Armchair QB every Monday at 12 noon PT on Facebook or 4 pm PT on NBC Sports Bay Area. Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:

Player You're Most Eager to Watch vs. Eagles

You can go a number of directions with this one, as the 49ers could potentially see a couple of guys returning from injury this week. Signs are pointing to the 49ers getting their star tight end back in the fold after missing the last two contests with a knee injury. Kittle spoke with the media on Thursday and said he felt as if he could have played in the 49ers Week 2 matchup, however, for obvious reasons, the team decided to be cautious in his return.

Kittle was a full participant during this week's practices, and barring any setbacks, should take the field on Sunday night. Nick Mullens should benefit greatly having Kittle on the field. During their time together after Jimmy Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard went down with injuries in 2018, Mullens connected with Kittle 51 times for 793 yards and three touchdowns in eight games. Kittle averaged 10 targets and 99 yards a game with Mullens at the helm during his record-breaking season. Both should be able to benefit from one another against an Eagles team who has allowed four touchdowns to tight ends so far this season (a goldmine for those fantasy owners out there).

I know it's about as exciting as picking the sun to rise in the east, and pardon me for not breaking the mold, but the answer here is Brandon Aiyuk.

We knew the pedigree when he got drafted. All Pac-12 as a wide receiver and a kick returner and a YAC master. Word on the street was, all you had to do was give him the ball in space and he would do the rest. After a ho-hum NFL debut in Week 2 against the Jets where he only caught two balls for 21 yards, Aiyuk broke out like acne on a teenager before prom.

The rookie from ASU had team-highs in catches (5), receiving yards (70) and targets (8) while adding a 19-yard scoring scamper on a beautifully designed end around. Watching Aiyuk saunter into the end zone untouched, I couldn't help but think, "Oh my God, we've got another Deebo!" We saw what Kyle Shanahan did with a weapon like Deebo Samuel last season. Now he's got a Deebo duplicate. My mouth was watering thinking of what Shanahan could do with both wideouts on the field at the same time. That time will come. For now, I'm ready to see what Aiyuk can do a week after his coming out party.

Which 49ers Defensive Do You Predict Will Force a Turnover?

Kinlaw will make his national debut on Sunday, and according to the first-round pick, there aren't any primetime jitters. Asked about his excitement to take the big stage for the first time in his young career, Kinlaw responded, "I'm not excited when I play. I'm very angry when I play." He'll be looking to take out his anger against an Eagles offensive line that has allowed 33 pressures and 11 sacks on the year.

But beyond rushing the passer, Kinlaw (6-foot-5, 319 pounds) possesses a whopping 83 6/8-inch wingspan that has already tipped a pass in Week 3 against the Giants. During his time at South Carolina, he amassed 35 tackles, six tackles for loss, six sacks, two fumble recoveries and two passes batted down. On "Sunday Night Football," how about a coming out party where the rookie forces his first turnover of the season to silence any naysayers of his early production.

orty-three NFL quarterbacks have thrown a pass through the first three weeks of the regular season. Carson Wentz has thrown more interceptions than 41 of them. Wentz was the No. 2 pick back in 2016 and he may have been an MVP candidate before he got hurt the following season, but he's had a hard time taking care of the ball.

That's great news for a 49ers defense that's only given up one touchdown and 22 points over the last two weeks. So, the question becomes, which DB picks him off?

I'm going to go with my heart and say Jason Verrett. How can you not root for him? After years of battling injuries, Verrett seems healthy and poised to have a productive season. Since his Pro Bowl season in 2015, Verrett has struggled to stay on the field, only playing in seven games and missing the entire 2018 season.

In his 2020 debut last week, Verrett showed glimpses of 2015. He had two tackles and only allowed two catches on four targets for nine yards. He had a PFF grade of 75.3, the fourth highest of any 49ers defender. The knock on Verrett is he's injury prone. If he can stay healthy, he can be really good. Which is like saying, if I had wheels I'd be a bicycle. But I'm optimistic, especially with all the injuries to the Niners secondary, that Verrett can stay on the field and be one of the best DBs on the team.

Be careful, Carson.

Expectations for Nick Mullens

@KeianaMartinTV – 250 passing yards and two touchdowns

There was tape on Mullens from his eight starts in 2018. Now, the Eagles have that and his standout performance from Week 3 to dissect. The Eagles defense is desperate for their first win of the season and are certainly engrossed with limiting the 49ers offense.

The 49ers are facing a better defensive line than weeks past, however, with a secondary that has a few question marks with injuries. Last Sunday, the Eagles defensive line sacked Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow eight times and notched 18 quarterback hits on the day. Some of that pressure came off the blitz, as well. Through the first three weeks of the season, the 49ers offensive line has allowed 26 quarterback pressures, sitting just ahead of the league average.

Still, with the 49ers return of Kittle and (officially announced) Samuel, Mullens has gained two new weapons that we didn't see in his first start of the season. I'm sure Kyle Shanahan will put his quarterback in the best position to succeed. We may not see him light up the scoreboard like last week, but we'll definitely see the quarterback show off his improved arm strength with additional weapons at his disposal.

@SportsAnthony – 270 passing yards and 1 touchdown

I think we all knew heading into last week that Mullens could ball. In eight starts in 2018 he threw for over 2,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. But after last week's performance at MetLife Stadium, the quarterback threw 343 passing yards, a touchdown, completed 69 percent passing and finished with a quarterback rating of 108.9. Mullens was balling out of control. He was Tom Haverford from Parks & Rec's dream. He was buying the bar and partying next to the DJ. Mullens completely blew any expectations from last week out the window, but what will he do for a sequel?

Looking at the Eagles D, they only gave up 218.9 passing yards per game (ninth best in the NFL), but they also don't create turnovers. They have zero picks through their first three games and a league-low one takeaway. And they're banged up. Three of their DBs didn't practice Thursday. Mullens, meanwhile, has a game under his belt, a second week of practice knowing he's going to be the starter, and he gets George Kittle back. That would even make Peg Leg Pete a better QB.

If last week was an A+, I expect Mullens to get to a B this week with a tougher opponent. Give me 270 yards, and another touchdown pass. But it's not just my expectations Mullens must meet, he's starting to make national noise. I noticed on Thursday Night Football when promoting Sunday's game, Mullens was on the graphic. Expectations for Mullens this Sunday are high, but he's earned them.

We'll see if he's ready for his close-up.

Position Group You'll Be Watching the Closest

@KeianaMartinTV – Cornerbacks

Similar to the 49ers, the Eagles are dealing with a heap of injuries on both sides of the ball, most notably at wide receiver. The team announced on Friday that wideouts DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and Alshon Jeffery (foot) have been ruled OUT for Sunday and fellow wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (calf) is doubtful.

Philadelphia's available receivers (Greg Ward Jr., Deontay Burnett and John Hightower) have combined for eight career starts and amassed a combined 589 yards receiving. According to Pro Football Focus' Zach Berman, Ward was actually the only wide receiver on Philadelphia's 53-man roster practicing on Thursday because of all the injuries they have at the position.

The 49ers are dealing with their own injuries on the opposite side of the ball with Richard Sherman (calf) on Injured Reserve, Emmanuel Moseley (concussion) and Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) OUT and K'Waun Williams questionable with a hip injury. The 49ers will have to rely on Verrett and Dontae Johnson for the second-straight week as the veteran corners look to capitalize on the Eagles inexperience. This matchup can do so against Wentz, who has thrown two interceptions in each game so far this season and has provided more turnover opportunities than any other quarterback in the NFL.

@SportsAnthony – Defensive Line

No Nick Bosa, no Solomon Thomas, no problem for the 49ers defensive line last week. The defense as a whole was great, but the D-line, missing the Defensive Rookie of the Year and a former Top 3 pick, especially didn't miss a beat against the Giants. Kerry Hyder Jr.  and Dion Jordan both had sacks. Jordan jumped on a Giants fumble, and the 49ers defense only allowed 66 rushing yards.

But I'm interested to see how they respond this week against Philly. Tim Ryan, 49ers radio color commentator, said on Ask Papa this week on NBC Sports Bay Area that he felt the last two games in New Jersey were the best-coached games defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has ever had. And Saleh's done it missing his best guys by patching up the holes in front. The system and the scheme the Niners have in place is working. It seems for now that whoever they plug in can get the job done. And you've got to think they're going to improve from game to game. The D-line may have been one of the strengths of the entire team heading into the season, and even though they're not 100 percent, they're still getting the job done.

"Next man up" is one of the most tired of all football clichés, but that's the thing about clichés, right? They're true. Let's see if the makeshift D-line can hold up for another week.

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