Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Sunday's road game against the Buffalo Bills. **If the Buffalo Bills seriously want to earn a playoff spot, they can't afford to even lose one more game the rest of this season. They have two huge games coming up against division opponents following Sunday's game against the 49ers. History has dictated throughout the NFL, that when you overlook an opponent with a losing record, it's called a "trap game."
But I can guarantee you, Bills head coach Dick Jauron is schooling his team on that subject. They can't afford to look past the 49ers, just like the Dallas Cowboys didn't. If the Bills look past the 49ers, their upcoming division games won't even matter anymore.
This Sunday, with the weather looking like it's going to be a factor in the game, it's really just another challenge for the 49ers. Some guys get dramatically affected by bad weather, but most of the guys on the 49ers aren't from California. These guys have all played through inclement weather before.
Still, it does add to the already home field advantage for Buffalo because first off, the BIlls don't have to travel across the country, and the weather is something that they're all used to day in and day out. But if you look at it closely, this is what head coach Mike Singletary and general manager Scot McCloughan have been building this team for. They're looking for a playoff team, one that is physical and that can handle the bad weather of late season games.
This is an opportunity for evaluation once again. The 49ers need to come out and play physical by running the football. And they have to stop the run, which they've been doing a great job of recently. That's going to be critical again on Sunday.
I would put Bills running back Marshawn Lynch in the same category as the running back the 49ers did well against last week, Marion Barber. They're both big, physical runners, who won't try and make a lot of moves. Like Barber, Lynch would rather run over you and punish you.
He's an extremely talented back, who is tied for the lead for receptions on their team. The reason for that is the Bills use a lot of play-action passes, which is much more effective when you're running the football. Lynch is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and he's a bruising back, who is excellent in short yardage situations.
Last week the 49ers faced the third biggest offensive line in football, and did a really good job against a talented running back. This week, the 49ers will be going against the biggest offensive line in football, so it will be another great challenge.
The main recipient of Edwards' passes off the play-action is wide receiver Lee Evans. He's third in the NFL with 19.3 yards per catch and is third in the NFL with ten receptions of 25 or more yards. That's where the 49ers struggle, giving up plays of 25 yards or more in the passing game. Again, that's going to be a huge key in the game. Evans was a former teammate of Nate Clements, so their matchup will be like their practices back when they played together in Buffalo.
Clements doesn't have top-flight speed, but he is a physical guy. It's going to be tougher to play Evans physical, because he's quicker and faster than Terrell Owens. The 49ers could opt to match someone other than Clements up against this speedy wideout. You can have a Donald Strickland, who is a little bit quicker, jam him at the line of scrimmage with a safety over the top, or you could still have Clements jam him at the line with the safety over the top.
Those are two possibilities, while playing zone is another. In my opinion, the number one key to this game is stopping the big play. There are only three teams in the NFL who have given up more big plays than the 49ers.
The strange part about that is you don't normally see big plays against zone coverage. The 49ers aren't a big blitzing team on defense either, which is when you see an awful lot of the big plays happen.
The 49ers have been beat deep because of blown coverage and technique. Obviously they've been beaten one-on-one as well, but Evans is going to be the primary concern when it comes to the deep ball. He's had four games in which he's surpassed the 100-yard mark this season.
With Edwards, what makes him so effective is he'll come off that deep ball to Evans if he's not open and dump it off to Lynch, who has 42 catches.
Both Lynch and Fred Jackson, their third down back, have more catches than any other running back tandem in the NFL. That's where your linebackers, Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson, and of course Joe Staley come into play.
Offensively for the 49ers, they need to move past the red zone struggles of last week. Obviously, when you get to the 4-yard line twice in the first quarter, and you score six points instead of 14, it's frustrating. But the 49ers have been very good statistically in the red zone this year.
I don't see that continuing to be a problem, but one thing that I've seen in the last two games is that teams are going to come after Shaun Hill. I was really surprised how much Dallas pressured him. Once that gets on game tape, other teams will try to copy it. It's something the 49ers should be prepared for.
With more pressure on Hill, opposing defenses are also bringing extra defenders to stop Frank Gore. When defenses bring an eighth or ninth defender in the box, they're only a few ways you can beat that. You can run more trap plays, because they are quick-hitting plays that allow you to split a defense. If that happens, it can be a huge gain. Also, screens can be effective. And then the quick pop passes, that we've seen all year. But you have to change those things up. It just can't be always a quick slant to the wide receiver. You can run a quick pass to the tight end, or a swing pass to Gore out of the backfield. There's a number of ways you can do it. You can go max protection and if you're against man-to-man coverage, you like to run crossing routes because you're running away from defenders. If you can get inside, it makes for a very easy completion.
It's important to note that the Bills have only 18 sacks on the season. This is one of the few teams that have fewer sacks than the 49ers. One of the reasons is the Bills are without Aaron Schobel, who is second only to Dwight Freeney in the last four years, in terms of his number of sacks. He's been at the Pro Bowl for the last two years, but he has been out of action now for seven weeks.
So that means Hill will have some time to throw. Last week, he was able to get Isaac Bruce involved, and Bruce looked as good as I've seen him in a long time. For a guy to get a laceration on his head in the first quarter and have to get nine staples in the back of his head, and come back out and have a great game – that's a tremendous display of toughness. I think that's great for the young receivers on the 49ers to see.
Another plus on the 49ers side is that Buffalo's defense has given up an average of 390 yards per game in the last three weeks, 154 of those have been on the ground, so this is a game where you could see Gore getting off.
The 49ers have had an advantage with special teams in almost every game, but last week, they got beaten soundly in the special teams phase of the game.
This week, they face the number one punt returner and kick returner in the NFL. The special teams unit of the Bills, coached by Bobby April, is one of the best units in the league. They have two dynamic return men in kick returner Leodis McKelvin and punt returner Roscoe Parrish. Their average drive start is first in the NFL. Stopping their returners is going to be another big key for the game.
Playing on the road with an early kickoff hasn't affected the 49ers under Coach Singletary. If you look at how they started against Dallas and St. Louis, that hasn't been an issue. I think what's happened with most teams playing on the other side of the country, is that they've been overwhelmed from the start. That hasn't been the case with the 49ers. It's been a case of not finishing. And that's been a point of Singletary's. Starting off the game is one thing, but ultimately it's the team that can finish that comes out on the winning end.