SANTA CLARA – What do the 49ers have left in the tank after their wild Week 14 win in New Orleans?
Apparently, quite a lot.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk emerged earlier this week from an offensive installation meeting in preparation to face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. He scoffed at the question of whether coach Kyle Shanahan exhausted the playbook in the team’s 48-46 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
“Believe it or not, yeah, there’s a lot left,” Juszczyk said of the coaching staff’s plan against the Falcons. “They’re not backing down. This is not a game that we’re taking lightly or overlooking. We’re putting our best foot forward as if this is the biggest game of the year.”
The 49ers (11-2) lead the NFC West over the Seattle Seahawks (10-3). San Francisco currently holds the best record in the NFC and cannot afford a slip-up at this point in the season against Dan Quinn’s 4-9 Falcons.
Here is this week’s list of players who could be the difference between a 49ers win or an upset loss against Atlanta:
5. TE George Kittle
If the 49ers are playing a game, you almost have to include either Jimmy Garoppolo or George Kittle (or both) on this list of players to watch.
Garoppolo is coming on strong with more experience and more reliable targets in the passing game, including Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. But when the 49ers need a play – or an injection of enthusiasm or momentum – they generally turn to Kittle.
Kittle is such a huge part of the 49ers’ offense both in the passing game and as a run-blocker. His stats are not nearly as impressive as a year ago when he set the NFL single-season record of 1,377 yards receiving from a tight end. But he probably is a better all-around player.
Kittle makes this team go.
4. RB Raheem Mostert
Raheem Mostert has appeared in 47 games in his five-year NFL career. He has yet to start a game, technically, but he’s often been on the field for the opening kickoff because of his role on special teams.
But Mostert has quickly turned into the 49ers’ leading rusher and the team’s top running back. When the 49ers faced a make-or-break final drive against New Orleans in Week 14, Mostert was on the field.
Mostert has gained a team-leading 608 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 102 attempts for an average of 6.0 yards per carry. Mostert has elite, world-class speed that places him in scoring position every time he touches the ball.
3. CBs Ahkello Witherspoon, Emmanuel Moseley
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman will not play Sunday due to a right hamstring injury. The 49ers will turn to Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley to cover the Falcons’ group of wideouts, including the incomparable Julio Jones.
Jones is in the midst of his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. He has 69 receptions for 1,016 yards in 12 games for an Atlanta offense that dropped 40 points just last week on the Carolina Panthers.
Jones (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) is a handful for any cornerback. The 49ers will play sides and not have one specific player shadowing Jones across the field, so both Witherspoon and Moseley will be tested throughout the course of the game.
2. DL Solomon Thomas
The 49ers’ defensive line has taken some hits in recent weeks. Nose tackle D.J. Jones is out for the season with a severe high-ankle sprain. The 49ers could be without edge rusher Dee Ford for the remainder of the regular season due to a hamstring injury.
The 49ers will turn to Solomon Thomas to help pick up the slack both as an interior player on run downs and as an edge rusher in nickel situations.
Thomas may never live up to the lofty expectations that came with being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft. But he can serve a valuable role for the 49ers down the stretch and into the playoffs if he can beat one-on-one blocks to make plays.
Thomas had a third-down sack last week against Drew Brees in the fourth quarter that was nullified by Sherman’s defensive holding penalty. He has to play well and make plays on a more consistent basis to take the pressure off Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
1. C Ben Garland
Only one person other than Garoppolo touches the ball on every 49ers’ offensive play, and that player will be making his first start with the organization on Sunday.
In Shanahan’s system, there is a lot of responsibilities on the team’s center and offensive guards. Ben Garland steps into the lineup to replace Weston Richburg, who sustained a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his right knee against the Saints.
Garland played well in his 36 snaps amidst the deafening noise of the Superdome in the 49ers’ victory over the Saints. He showed his agility and knowledge of the system in getting out front on a couple of plays that went for good yardage.
Garland will face a big test on Sunday against Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who has 5.5 sacks this season and will try to get push up the middle to disrupt Garoppolo’s ability to step up and deliver the ball down the field.