This is the time of the season when teams count on their best players to play like stars.
The 49ers have plenty of star power, that’s for sure.
And those players will be needed to be at their best on Thursday night when the 49ers face the Tennessee Titans in an important Week 16 interconference matchup between teams that are currently in strong playoff positions.
The NFL on Wednesday announced the Pro Bowl rosters with three games remaining in the season.
Five members of the 49ers earned Pro Bowl honors, and those are the players we will highlight in this edition of Five to Watch:
5. FB Kyle Juszczyk
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk now has been recognized with a Pro Bowl distinction in each of his five seasons with the 49ers.
His unique ability to change direction and hit a moving target has allowed 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to become more and more creative with the team’s run-game concepts.
The 49ers rank seventh in the NFL with 126.6 yards rushing per game. It does not seem to matter who is lining up at halfback because Juszczyk is able to adjust his game to any style. (And, for the record, it will be Jeff Wilson again, with Elijah Mitchell still sidelined with a knee injury.)
Juszczyk also is productive with the ball in his hands. He has accounted for 17 first downs with his 25 receptions and eight rushing attempts. He has one touchdown rushing and one receiving.
4. TE George Kittle
Since returning from a calf injury that slowed him in the early portion of the season and eventually led to a three-game absence on injured reserve, tight end George Kittle has been at the top of his game.
He is again becoming quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s go-to man. In his past three games, Kittle has 28 receptions for 425 yards and three touchdowns.
Kittle continues to be a dynamic presence as a blocker in the run game, as the 49ers will always try to control the clock and wear teams down with their ground attack.
3. WR Deebo Samuel
Deebo Samuel gives the 49ers’ offense exactly what it needs.
In the early portion of the season when wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk was struggling and Kittle was not healthy, Samuel was the do-everything guy in the 49ers’ passing game. He had 54 catches for 979 yards and five touchdowns in he first nine games.
When the 49ers needed something extra in the run game, coach Kyle Shanahan turned to Samuel. He has just seven catches in the past four games while most of his contributions have come as a running back. Samuel has 242 yards and six touchdowns on the ground over the past five games.
Whatever the 49ers need Thursday night against the Titans, Samuel will be asked to deliver.
2. LT Trent Williams
Offensive tackle Trent Williams protects Garoppolo’s blindside while also combining with guard Laken Tomlinson to open big holes on the left side of the 49ers’ line.
By all accounts, Williams is playing the best football of his career. He was selected to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl.
He did not play during the 2019 season after undergoing surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his scalp. Other than that he has been selected to the Pro Bowl every year beginning with his third season in the NFL.
Williams is a powerful and athletic run blocker who is capable of executing at a high level in any style of offense.
Harold Landry is the Titans’ team-leader with 11 sacks. He mostly lines up on the defense’s right edge. In that alignment, he would mostly go up against Williams. The 49ers count on Williams to win those one-on-one matchups.
1. DE Nick Bosa
It might come as a surprise that the 49ers’ pass defense ranks No. 7 in the league, allowing just 213.2 yards passing per game. Defensive end Nick Bosa is a big part of the team’s success in that area.
While the 49ers have been hit by injuries at cornerback, the pass defense has generally produced at a high level with a big assist from the team’s pass rush.
Bosa was named to his second Pro Bowl this week. He is also a leading candidate for NFC Comeback Player of the Year. He is tied for third in the NFL with 15 sacks after appearing in just one full game last season due to a torn ACL. No less an authority as Williams says Bosa is the best in the business.
Bosa also has 29 quarterback hits and a league-best 18 tackles for loss.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw 55 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions in the 2019 and ’20 seasons. This year, he has struggled with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The 49ers cannot afford to allow Tannehill to get comfortable, and it all starts with Bosa applying the constant pressure.