Five 49ers to watch in Week 2: Nothing changes with Matt Breida as lead back

Five 49ers to watch in Week 2: Nothing changes with Matt Breida as lead back

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.

[RELATED: Why Sherman continues to play with chip on his shoulder]

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.

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

NEW ORLEANS – The 49ers’ pass rush can once again be a factor this week.

The 49ers went into their Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens knowing they had to make some dramatic changes with their style of getting after the quarterback.

After all, they could not be so aggressive, as 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek teaches, because of the running ability of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

On Sunday, they can get back to normal against the passing attack of the New Orleans Saints with quarterback Drew Brees.

“Those guys want to get after the quarterback,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “I know the D-line. I know their coach. It was a tough week for them. But they rose to the challenge and played those techniques very well. I thought they did a very good job against Baltimore and stopping the run.

“And now this week, you still got to stop the run. It always starts with that, but you can play a little more of those techniques you’re used to, which I know they have a lot more fun playing and I know we have a lot more fun coaching it, too.”

It certainly will not be easy for the 49ers’ pass rush to get to Brees, who has been sacked just nine times on 249 drop-backs this season. Brees gets the ball out quickly, in order to neutralize the 49ers’ pass rush of Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.

A week ago, the 49ers played a different style in an attempt to prevent big plays from Baltimore’s quarterback-driven run game. Buckner registered the team’s only sack, and that came for zero yards.

The 49ers gave up some rushing yards, but made adjustments in the second half to limit Baltimore to just three points in the final 30 minutes.

[RELATED: How will 49ers deploy running backs?]

“When you do that, you definitely have to change-up your fronts and play run-first at all times,” Shanahan said. “You got to almost play in a four-point stance and just control people instead of teeing off on guys and trying to go through them. I know last week was a frustrating week.”

The 49ers own the league's top-ranked passing defense, allowing just 134.2 yards passing per game. The 49ers rank second in the NFL with 45 sacks.

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

NEW ORLEANS – It’s a good problem for the 49ers to figure out who among their running backs they are going to feature.

Leading rusher Matt Breida is scheduled to return to action on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints after missing three games with an ankle sprain. Raheem Mostert is coming off a 146-yard day, the best game from a 49ers running back in three years. But what kind of role will he play on Sunday?

That question leads off this edition of the 49ers Mailbag:

Coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff put a lot of discussion into how they are going to use their backs. Shanahan talks to his entire offensive staff, as well as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, about which plays are best fits for which players.

Then, Shanahan’s in-game decisions are also influenced by which running back is having the most success.

“None of them are bad at anything, so whatever we end up going with, all of them have a chance, whatever play it is,” Shanahan said on 49ers Game Plan, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area and 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“We definitely try to decide which one we prefer during the week. We go into the game with a plan, but then we always stick with what’s hot.”

Tevin Coleman has been getting the starting assignments. It remains to be seen if that will continue, but Breida and Mostert should get their opportunities, too. 

I don’t know about using Daniel Brunskill for any trick plays, but it might not be a bad idea to mix him in for a series here and there to ease Joe Staley back into the action.

Staley has missed nine games this season, and Brunskill has shown to be a very effective player. It could be something along the lines of how the 49ers got Ahkello Witherspoon back into his starting role. At first, they had Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley sharing the playing time before Witherspoon was all the way back.

Richard Sherman will play despite hobbled last week with a knee injury. He appeared to be moving well during 49ers practices this week in Florida.

The only 49ers starter who will not play on Sunday is strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who may miss multiple games with fractured ribs. Marcell Harris will start at strong safety. But everybody else is good to go, including Breida, Staley and Dee Ford.

My hunch is that if the 49ers do not place the franchise tag on Arik Armstead, he will end up signing a lucrative multi-year contract with another team as an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers' top priorities to sign to multi-year extensions are defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle.

[RELATED: Kittle on pace for best PFF season]

Neither Jalen Hurd nor Trent Taylor will play this season. Hurd will miss his entire rookie season due to a stress reaction in his back, while Taylor is out for the season from complications after undergoing surgery on a Jones fracture in his right foot.

The 49ers elevated defensive lineman Kentavius Street to practice this week. The 49ers might use their final injured reserve/designated to return spot on cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been out with a knee injury. He could return to practice as early as Wednesday.

The odds are very slim that Marquise Goodwin will be back on the team next season. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2020, and that is not a price the 49ers are going to pay for what he gives them.

The 49ers are not giving up on Dante Pettis, though. They want him to put in the work during the offseason to have a big bounce-back season.

Pettis experienced the same kind of second season as Ahkello Witherspoon. Both players experienced success to ends their rookie seasons and thought they had it figured out.

[RELATED: How to watch 49ers-Saints]

Witherspoon struggled in Year 2, and realized what he had to do in order to perform at a high level. He came back focused for a strong third season.

The 49ers hope Pettis will make the same kinds of adjustments to his work ethic and mindset to become a reliable receiver in 2020.