SANTA CLARA – The hottest team in the AFC plays host Sunday to the team with the best record in the NFC with forecasts calling for a 100-percent chance of rain and temperatures in the 40s.
The Baltimore Ravens, owners of the most potent offense in the NFL, face the NFC-leading 49ers, who are expecting their opponent to stick with what has been working, regardless of the conditions.
“I have a feeling they’re going to run the ball whether it’s raining or not,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I don’t know how much it’s going to change.”
The game Sunday marks the midpoint of a challenging three-game stretch for Shanahan’s team. The 49ers (10-1) face three consecutive opponents with win percentages of .800 or better, the first time a team has faced three consecutive opponents this strong this late in the season in the Super Bowl era.
The 49ers opened the back-to-back-to-back with an impressive 37-8 victory over the Green Bay Packers. Next week, the 49ers go up against the 10-2 New Orleans Saints.
But, first, the 49ers must contend with John Harbaugh’s Ravens, who have taken over the top spot in the NFL Power Rankings.
Here are five 49ers who should have important roles in Sunday’s game.
5. RT Mike McGlinchey
Second-year offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey is coming off his best game of the season. Now, he must keep it going on Sunday against the Ravens.
McGlinchey will find himself matched up for at least half of the game against strong side outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who leads the Ravens with seven sacks on the season. Regardless of which player he finds lined up across from him, McGlinchey must take care of business with little to no help.
The 49ers have more uncertainty on the other side of the line. Veteran left tackle Joe Staley has missed eight games this season with fractures to his left leg and a finger on his right hand. If he returns to action Sunday, some rust can be expected.
Rookie Justin Skule struggled in the first half of the 49ers’ game last week against Green Bay, and Daniel Brunskill entered the game in his place. The team’s left tackle likely will require more help in pass protection, so the pressure is on McGlinchey to handle business on his own.
4. DL Arik Armstead
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead is having his breakout season as a fifth-year pro. It is coming at the best time for him, as he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
Armstead had nine sacks in his first 46 NFL games. In 11 games this season, he has registered a team-leading 10 sacks. Armstead is benefitting greatly from the 49ers’ wide-nine alignment.
The idea that new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has brought to the team is to get to the quarterback on every play. And on the way to the quarterback, if it’s a run play, the adjustment is made. That mentality could create some problems Sunday.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson orchestrates the league’s best running game. Under offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the Ravens have a variety of read-option run plays. Jackson is Baltimore’s leading rusher with 876 yards and an electrifying 7.1 average.
And when Jackson hands it off to his backs, Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards both are averaging 5.2 yards a carry. Armstead must be solid as a run defender on base downs at defensive end, and as a pass-rushing interior lineman on nickel downs.
3. TE George Kittle
The area of the Ravens defense that Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can exploit is the linebackers. None of Baltimore’s linebackers can even come close to handling George Kittle.
Therefore, the chore for Shanahan will be to devise a series of shifts, motions and route concepts that test the coverage skills of inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor. Whenever Kittle is matched up against the linebackers, that’s when Garoppolo must strike to get the ball in his hands.
Kittle returned to action last week after missing two games with ankle and knee injuries. He immediately picked up where he left off with six receptions for 129 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown catch. Big plays could decide the game Sunday, and Kittle is the 49ers’ best bet.
2. WR Deebo Samuel
Rookie receiver Deebo Samuel has emerged as a reliable threat in the passing game – both to keep the chains moving and to supply a big play with his yards-after-the-catch skills.
With the inclement weather expected Sunday, it might be difficult for Garoppolo to drive the ball down the field on deeper routes. Samuel could be a significant factor with his ability to catch the ball on an underneath route, then challenge the Ravens secondary to tackle him.
In his past three games, Samuel has 18 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown. He will be working against some top-notch corners Sunday, namely Marcus Peters, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey.
1. SS Jaquiski Tartt
No player on the 49ers’ defense will be challenged quite like strong safety Jaquiski Tartt.
The 49ers will be dedicated to slowing down Baltimore’s ground attack on first and second downs to put them in third-and-long situations – where the team’s strong pass rush can get after Jackson.
Tartt will be the eighth defender in the box and will have to quickly diagnose the Ravens’ read-option plays, whether Jackson is keeping the ball or handing off to Ingram or Edwards.
“The more he’s down there, the better he’s gotten in terms of feel, understanding his run fit, understanding his reads and being able to key in on the tailback and making sure that he can feel the line and all that stuff,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Tartt. “He’s gotten a lot better at it over the course of his career and he’s going to need to be even better this week.”