49ers

Five 49ers to watch in Week 15: Ben Garland takes center stage vs. Falcons

Five 49ers to watch in Week 15: Ben Garland takes center stage vs. Falcons

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.

[RELATED: Ravens and Saints, not Seahawks, are best 49ers have faced]

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.

Richard Sherman's Hall-of-Fame credentials key to 49ers' playoff run

Richard Sherman's Hall-of-Fame credentials key to 49ers' playoff run

SANTA CLARA -- It’s tough to get to a Super Bowl, much less win it, without multiple figures bringing Hall ofFame credentials. Not those with the potential to get to Canton, Ohio, but those for whom space already has been cleared for a bust.

The 21st-century New England Patriots, despite their high roster-turnover rate, have ushered nearly a dozen individuals into the Hall or to its doorstep. Cornerback Ty Law was a member of the last class. Mainstays Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and defensive lineman Richard Seymour are sure to follow. Already in are short-termers Randy Moss, Curtis Martin and the late Junior Seau -- all of whom were Hall-worthy vets when they arrived in New England.

There are others sure to be nominated, but you get the picture.

Yet the 49ers, favored over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LIV, only have one Hall of Famer.

Richard Sherman.

For several of Sherman’s teammates, notably George Kittle and Nick Bosa, it’s too soon to project. And it’s ridiculously early to project coach Kyle Shanahan, who is six days removed from his first playoff game and victory.

Sherman, 31, would have a Hall-ready resume if he retired in the coming weeks.

The cornerback has been named first-team All-Pro three times, second-team All-Pro twice, has more interceptions (35) than any other active player the last decade and last month was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team.

Multiple Pro Bowl selections? Check. Sherman is up to five.

Super Bowl champion? Check.

Multiple Super Bowl appearances? Check.

Comes up with big plays at crucial moments? Routinely.

“People don’t really try him,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead told NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday.

There is another factor Sherman adds. His intangibles are as strong as his tangibles. Unlike most great cornerbacks, he’s not a man on an island but at once a galvanizing and unifying force for the entire defense and also the team as a whole.

“Usually, they’re out there, they just want to cover people,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of cornerbacks, adding that Sherman’s impact on his teammates is more like that which comes from great linebackers.

Sherman is in his second year with the 49ers in part because some considered him damaged goods after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon in November 2017, and then enduring a less invasive surgery on his left Achilles’ tendon a few months later.

His recovery has been stunning. Because of it, he’s not an aging player-coach unable to summon his A-game, but is a hyperactive playmaker that has been so right, in so many ways, for a young team that doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

“Sherm is amazing,” Armstead said. “He’s the leader of our team and our defense. Super smart. Extremely talented. It’s been great to have him. He means a lot to me; he’s a mentor and I have a lot of fun playing with him.”

When I asked Saleh the other day what, exactly, Sherman brings to the unit, he didn’t mention interceptions or passes defensed. Didn’t even point out Sherman’s knack for reading offenses.

“Pure gas,” Saleh said.

“Gas” translates to fuel. It’s an element essential to operating a vehicle at maximum capacity. Or, in this case, doing the same to a football team.

Sherman was a vocal leader of those Seattle Seahawks teams that were such fierce rivals of the 49ers. Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense was terrific partly because quarterbacks learned to avoid Sherman – and those that tried him generally came away empty.

[RELATED: 49ers' history brings inspiration no pressure to Jimmy G]

San Francisco’s defense lacks the catchy name, but it has the same intensity, most of which is supplied by Sherman.

When you add Sherman’s entire catalog -- statistics, physical presence, emotional influence and the psychological edge he provides -- his Hall of Fame worthiness is without question.

There may come a time when others wearing the scarlet and gold reach the doorstep of Canton. He’s the only member of this team we know will be waiting.

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

SANTA CLARA -- Though Richard Sherman is a graduate of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on planet earth, his Thursday afternoon analysis of defensive strategy came straight outta Compton.

The subject was man-to-man coverage and Sherman’s avowed comfort at left cornerback.

The insinuation was that an opposing team could, theoretically, neutralize Sherman, surely the 49ers' best cornerback and perhaps tops in the NFL, by sending its best receiver to the opposite side of the field.

That the Green Bay Packers, for example, might frequently deploy No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the right side of the San Francisco defense when the teams meet Sunday to decide the NFL representative in Super Bowl LIV.

It would not be illogical, in this instance, to have Sherman “shadow” Adams. Many defensive coordinators have made that request of their top cover corner.

Sherman proceeded to eviscerate that plan by using what folks in his hometown refer to as common sense.

“We have the No. 1 pass defense in this league,” the Compton native said while standing at the podium in the interview auditorium, “and we haven’t done it.”

The statistics absolutely support Sherman’s claim and his dismissiveness toward making a change that might convey a measure of desperation by the 49ers.

With Sherman almost exclusively on the left side, San Francisco in the regular season was the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game – the lowest average allowed by any team since 2009, when the Jets limited passers to an average of 153.7.

Moreover, the 49ers led the league in net yards per attempt at 4.8 and tied with the Patriots for fewest first downs allowed via pass, averaging 9.4 per game.

These numbers are among the factors that have made defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a candidate to become a head coach. They undoubtedly influence Sherman’s belief in Saleh, and as long as the numbers confirm no change is needed there will be request to follow Adams on Sunday or any other receiver on any other team.

“I love it how people are like, ‘Oh, my gawd, these guys need to do this,’ ” Sherman said in his usual audacious tone. “Well, I’m going to let you know something: You go to your job and tell your boss what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do and see how long you last.

“Saleh calls the defense. If Saleh comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you follow this guy everywhere he goes,' then that’s what I’m going to do. If he doesn’t, guess what? I’m going to do what he told me to do. That’s how coaching and player relationships work.

“And it just so happens, we have the No. 1 pass defense in the league,” he reiterated before sprinkling bits of sarcasm with his truth. “Whoa! Oh, my gawd! It’s crazy. Crazy that you’re not following anybody but, somehow, you’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the league. It’s almost like our strategy works. It’s almost like you’re in idiot for doing it any other way. It’s almost like you’re dumb if you do it another way. It’s almost like people who have been saying, ‘Oh, do it this way’ for so long, but they don’t have the No. 1 defense.”

For Sherman, and for Saleh, it’s about doing what has worked. What succeeds. What wins. Is there a risk to staying true to their tendencies? Perhaps. If Adams avoids Sherman and torches Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon – and the latter has been vulnerable – and Green Bay prevails, there will be second-guessing. Because there always is.

Don’t expect it from Sherman, who posed a rhetorical scenario that essentially has a great left tackle shadowing a great pass rusher, no matter where he goes. This does not happen, nor can it ever be expected.

Until it does, Sherman has one criterion for any strategy involving his placement.

[RELATED: 49ers focused on Rodgers' patented move]

“Does it help us win the game? Is it going to help the defense? Is it going to help us limit their explosive (plays)? Then I’ll do it,” he said. “If it’s not. If it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s ... then that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s not that he never has shadowed a receiver. He has done it against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But as a rule, no.

So when the topic was floated this time, Sherman was armed and ready, and filled the room with facts.