SANTA CLARA – The 49ers, a team that was bumped off Sunday Night Football on NBC twice last season, will play its third game under the lights in the past four weeks.
The 49ers return to Sunday Night Football after a four-year absence, as this Week 12 meeting against the Green Bay Packers was flexed from its originally scheduled afternoon start to a prime-time showcase.
The 49ers lead the NFC West with a conference-best record of 9-1. The Packers come to town at 8-2 under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said he was struck this week as he looked in the defensive meeting room and saw that only Richard Sherman and Dee Ford have previously been on NFL teams with winning records. (Ford will not play this week due to a hamstring injury.)
Shanahan has stressed to his team there is a different kind of pressure that comes when a team is winning as opposed to the misery of losing.
“People are telling you how good you are,” Shanahan said. “The league is hard every year. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on, they’re just different reasons why. I just try to tell guys that if you get too caught up in the moment and stuff it doesn’t seem as much fun and you need to make sure you enjoy this moment.”
It's an important game for the 49ers as they look to lock down a playoff spot and set themselves up for the postseason. Here are five players who should have key roles in Sunday’s game:
5. DT DeForest Buckner
DeForest Buckner is No. 2 on the 49ers in tackles with 40 through 10 games. His sack number is down from 12 last season to five, but that does not mean he is not performing up to expectations.
Buckner continues to play well, but the thing he has been lacking has been the one dominant game. The 49ers’ defense will be counting on Buckner on all downs Sunday against the Packers.
First, the 49ers have to take care of Green Bay running back Aaron Jones, who has rushed for 589 yards and 11 touchdowns. Buckner plays a huge role on those early downs to force offenses into passing situations.
Then, Buckner can be unleashed as a dominant inside pass-rusher on third downs. The 49ers count on Buckner and Arik Armstead inside to collapse the pocket, and that will be particularly important on Sunday against a mobile quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers.
4. TE George Kittle
It looks as if George Kittle is back for the 49ers, as he made it through practices Thursday and Friday on a limited basis. He is listed as questionable, which would seem to suggest he will be ready to return to action Sunday night after missing the past two games with knee and ankle issues.
Kittle leads the 49ers with 46 receptions for 541 yards. But what makes him the best in the game, according Cris Collinsworth, analyst for Sunday Night Football on NBC, is his yards after the catch and his dominance as a blocker.
The 49ers run game struggled without Kittle on the field, so getting him back in the action is a huge boost to get a proven playmaker and someone who has contagious enthusiasm and energy.
3. DE Nick Bosa
Another Bosa had a big day in Week 9 against Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari. Joey Bosa registered 1.5 sacks as the Los Angeles Chargers upset the Packers.
Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and younger brother of Joey, got off to a hot start with seven sacks in seven games. He has been shut out the past three games, but he is still applying pressure on the quarterback at an impressive rate.
Bosa has seen more than his share of double-teams, including backs, tight ends and wide receiver lending assistance to the left tackles he faces. But Bosa keeps right on coming.
“He’s consistently in the backfield disrupting both in the run and the pass game, and the motor on him is incredible,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of Bosa. “It doesn’t shock me because his brother is the same way. Anytime you get a player as talented as he is with a motor, that is a nightmare for an offense.”
2. RB Tevin Coleman
It will be another week without running back Matt Breida, which means Tevin Coleman will get the bulk of the rushing attempts. Coleman has not found much room to run in recent weeks as defenses have loaded the box to stop that element of the 49ers’ offense.
Coleman has 409 yards rushing with five touchdowns on a 3.9-yard average. The expected return of Kittle could be huge for Coleman, as the Packers might not be able to stack as many defenders close to the line of scrimmage. Also, Kittle’s blocking should be a help.
Coleman is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, so this could be an opportunity for Shanahan to design more plays to get the ball to Coleman in space, in order to take advantage of his speed.
1. FS Jimmie Ward
It does not get much more difficult for any free safety than facing Rodgers, one of the best in the history of the game. Rodgers is so good at taking deep shots when they present themselves, while also protecting the football from the hands of defensive backs.
Ward has been solid with his ability to play the deep middle and limiting the number of big plays the 49ers have surrendered this season. He wants to generate more takeaways, but this might not be the week for that.
Ward said he is neither satisfied or discouraged with how he has played in his seven starts. He said he rates himself somewhere in the middle. He will get tested on Sunday, as Rodgers likes to keep plays alive and deliver the game-changing play down the field. It will be Ward’s job to prevent that from happening.