The road has not been kind to the 49ers over most of the past two decades, but the club has a chance to pull off a rare feat away from home Sunday when they face the Cincinnati Bengals.
After an opening-week victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers have a chance to win their first two road games of a season for only the second time in 17 years.
They have not won games in the first two weeks on the road since 1989 – though this is only the third time since then the 49ers have had that opportunity.
The 49ers must play a better all-around game to beat the Bengals after a game in which they committed 11 penalties, including three that nullified touchdowns in the 49ers’ 31-17 victory last week at Tampa Bay.
Here are five key players to watch in Sunday’s game:
5. WR Dante Pettis
How can a wide receiver who was relegated to just two snaps in the season-opening game be considered a key player to watch?
Well, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan did not seem too pleased that Dante Pettis spent so much time as a spectator in Tampa Bay. It is generally the responsibility of the position coaches to determine the in-game rotations while Shanahan is making the play calls. And Shanahan seemingly made it clear to receivers coach Wes Welker that he wants to see more of Pettis and, perhaps, less of rookie Deebo Samuel on Sunday.
“We wanted Dante to play some last week. He didn’t play as much as we planned,” Shanahan said on "49ers Game Plan," which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).
“That won’t be the case (Sunday). That was an error on us. We need to get Dante out there. We can’t have Deebo out there as much. He is doing some good things, but he is also a rookie, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on him. We need the whole group to step it up and be more consistent.”
Pettis finished his rookie season strong in 2018. He caught just 27 passes but averaged 17.3 yards per reception and hauled in five touchdowns. But he was unable to carry over that momentum to training camp. He will get his opportunity against the Bengals.
4. CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Ahkello Witherspoon’s talent never has been in question. But through his first two seasons in the NFL, he lacked consistency. Richard Sherman said he sees an improved element of mental toughness this year in Witherspoon that allows him to quickly push aside any mistakes and focus on the next play.
There were no bad plays to forget about in the 49ers’ Week 1 victory at Tampa Bay. Witherspoon had the best game of his NFL career, including a game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against Jameis Winston.
Witherspoon said the game, which included three pass breakups and shutting down Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans, did not give him any added confidence. He said his confidence already was “through the roof.”
He will not be locked onto just one Bengals receiver, but he should see plenty of John Ross and Tyler Boyd throughout the day. Ross had his best game as a pro with seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1.
3. TE George Kittle
George Kittle set the all-time, single-season record for receiving yards from a tight end. Although he caught eight of the 10 passes that Jimmy Garoppolo threw his way in Week 1, Kittle had just 54 yards receiving.
Kittle had two touchdown receptions, including a 22-yarder, nullified by offensive penalties in the first half at Tampa Bay.
Kittle is at his best after the catch, so Shanahan will look to get the ball to Kittle in space, enabling him the best opportunity to run past or through Cincinnati’s defensive backfield.
The 49ers expect to have better balance on offense, but Kittle still is clearly the team’s go-to receiver when Garoppolo needs a big play.
2. DT DeForest Buckner
DeForest Buckner had his breakout season a year ago with 12 sacks. He got off to a great start with 3.5 sacks in his first two games.
But while the 49ers’ defensive front generated three sacks and helped force Winston into three interceptions, including two pick-sixes, Buckner was relatively quiet in Week 1. As the 49ers exhibit more of an outside pass rush, it should open things up for Buckner to apply pressure from the inside.
Even though Buckner faces a steady diet of double-teams, he should have some opportunities to break free against Bengals rookie right guard Michael Jordan, center Trey Hopkins and right guard John Miller. Coach Zac Taylor and quarterback Andy Dalton likely will try to counter with short drops and quick-hitting throws to slow down the 49ers’ pass rush.
1. RB Matt Breida
It was easy to question what role – if any – Matt Breida would have this season after the 49ers added Tevin Coleman as a free agent.
But Coleman is out indefinitely with a high-ankle sprain. (The 49ers hope to get him back following the bye week for the Monday, Oct. 7, game against Cleveland). And Jerick McKinnon is out for the second season in a row following another procedure on his right knee.
The 49ers know exactly what they have with Breida, who rushed for 814 yards with an impressive 5.3-yard average last season.
“Nothing changes,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers want to establish balance on offense with a mix in the running game, as well as using multiple and varied options in the passing game. If Breida is running effectively, it assuredly will create opportunities for Garoppolo with play action.