Five to watch in Week 3: 49ers fans look to Jimmy Garoppolo for their cues

Five to watch in Week 3: 49ers fans look to Jimmy Garoppolo for their cues

For the first time in 30 years, the 49ers will enter their regular-season home opener with a 2-0 record.

Fans of the 49ers found their way to Tampa Bay and Cincinnati in Weeks 1 and 2, and were loud and boisterous in the fourth quarter of those games as the home fans filed out.

“We did a good job of making them quiet,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on 49ers Game Plan, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

“We got to make sure Pittsburgh doesn’t do that to us. If we do our jobs as a team, I’m pretty confident our fans will do their job.”

The 49ers (2-0) face the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2) at 1:25 p.m. on Sunday. Shanahan wants his team to give the fans at Levi’s Stadium something to cheer about – a rare occurrence since the club moved its home stadium to Santa Clara in 2014.

“If we play well this Sunday – when I expect us to play well – I know they’ll be loud,” Shanahan said. “I just want everyone to show up and we’ll give them something to cheer about and be as rowdy as possible because it is a huge advantage.”

Here are five key players to watch in Sunday’s game:

5. CB K’Waun Williams

There is a lot that goes into playing nickel back, and the 49ers believe there are few at the position better than K’Waun Williams because of his understanding of the position and his tackling ability.

Williams, however, is coming off a rough game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which confusion in the secondary enabled Tyler Boyd to shake loose for 47 yards one play after the 49ers took a 7-0 lead.

How will the Steelers try to attack the 49ers? There could be a lot of multi-receiver sets and quick-hitting throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster from the slot to attack Williams in coverage. It’s OK for Williams to yield some of those completions, but he must keep the play in front of him and hold the gains to a minimum.

4. RB Raheem Mostert

It’s abundantly clear by now ... Raheem Mostert brings a lot more to the field than special-teams ability.

As long as Tevin Coleman remains out with a high ankle sprain, Mostert is expected to share the load with Matt Breida. Both players were outstanding in the 49ers’ 41-17 victory over the Bengals last week.

In fact, Mostert is so valuable now on offense that he saw only four snaps on special teams.

Mostert gained 83 yards rushing on 13 rushing attempts, and caught three passes for 68 yards and a 39-yard touchdown that gave the 49ers a first-quarter lead they never relinquished.

The running game is such a huge part of the 49ers’ offense, as it sets up the play-action passing game. Mostert and Breida have both shown big-play ability that makes them threats to take it the distance any time the ball is in their hands.

3. Steelers QB Mason Rudolph

Second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph takes over for Ben Roethlisberger, who is out for the season after receiving surgery on his throwing elbow. Rudolph will make his first NFL start Sunday after entering Pittsburgh’s game last week after halftime.

Rudolph completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards with two touchdown passes to former 49ers tight end Vance McDonald and one interception. He threw another interception on a failed two-point conversion attempt.

The 49ers’ defensive line will come at Rudolph in waves and try to pressure the Oklahoma State product into mistakes. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said it is to be expected that the 49ers will not get too predictable with their defensive assignments designed at confusing Rudolph.

“Whether it’s pre-snap disguise, post-snap coverage, pressure, not pressure, you go into every game trying to make sure that your looks and your disguises all keep the quarterback guessing so he has to figure it out post-snap,” Saleh said.

2. LT Justin Skule

When the 49ers selected Vanderbilt offensive tackle Justin Skule in the sixth round of the NFL draft, general manager John Lynch described him as a “scrapper.” He said Skule did not always look graceful and well-polished, but he almost always got the job done while playing in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.

Six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is out six to eight weeks with a fractured left lower leg. Skule certainly is not guaranteed to be the starter for as long as Staley is out of action. But Skule will get the first crack at the job Sunday against the Steelers. If he plays well, there's no reason to make a change. If he struggles, the 49ers will have to look at other options.

Skule will be matched up primarily against Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round draft pick who recorded from four to six sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons. The 49ers will use a variety of strategies to give Skule some help, but there also will be times when he must hold up one-on-one against a player with a large advantage in experience.

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1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

As much as the 49ers want there to be a significant home-field advantage and rising decibel levels in Levi’s Stadium, there is one person above all others whose performance will determine the level of fan participation.

It’s been one year and one week since Jimmy Garoppolo took the field in front of the home fans. As Garoppolo goes, so goes the spirits of the fan base.

Garoppolo has gotten off to a solid start through two games after missing the final 13 games a year ago with a torn ACL. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 462 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in road victories at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. His passer rating is 104.8.

Garoppolo still is working through chemistry issues with his cast of wide receivers. He should get more comfortable with the likes of Marquise Goodwin, Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, Richie James and Kendrick Bourne. When in doubt, he always has tight end George Kittle for those crucial third-down plays.

How Kurt Warner believes Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes are similar

How Kurt Warner believes Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes are similar

MIAMI, Fla. -- Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl with his strong and accurate throwing arm.

Jimmy Garoppolo repeatedly handed the ball off during the 49ers’ postseason run.

But both quarterbacks in Super Bowl LIV have succeeded in accomplishing the same thing for their team, Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner said in an interview Tuesday with NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Whether you throw eight passes in a championship game or you bring your team back from 24 points down, you have to do whatever you have to do at the quarterback position to win,” Warner said.

“I believe both of these guys have done that this year. There’ve been huge moments for Jimmy Garoppolo. The win down in New Orleans is one that jumps out to me. Hey, we got to go score 40 points? I can score 40 points. We got to hand the ball off every time and I throw eight passes? I can do that and I’m fine with that, as long as we win football games.”

Mahomes and Garoppolo did it in different ways, but they have proven to be the right quarterbacks for the Chiefs and the 49ers.

There are a lot of differences, but there is a similarity, too, Warner pointed out. Both players were backups for at least one season behind respected veteran quarterbacks. Alex Smith set a great example for Mahomes, while Garoppolo spent three-and-a-half seasons behind Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

“I think there’s a maturity to understand what goes into being an NFL quarterback and handling everything that comes with that,” Warner said. “Both of those guys got to learn from really good NFL quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Tom Brady.

“So you learn something from them on how you lead a franchise. I think both of them have done a tremendous job early in their careers at doing just that. And, now, early in their starting careers, they’re in the Super Bowl.”

Warner said he believes the key matchup of Sunday’s game will be the 49ers’ pass rush against Mahomes. The 49ers must find a way to get Mahomes out of rhythm and prevent him from connecting on big plays down the field.

The 49ers’ offense has to control the clock and keep Mahomes on the sideline. Then, the pass rush has to make it difficult for Mahomes to have time to get the ball down the field to the Chiefs’ speedy wide receivers.

“A lot of that is going to fall on those pass-rushers up front,” Warner said. ‘Can they get quick pressure on Patrick Mahomes. What do we know about the Kansas City Chiefs? They want to throw the ball down the field, and they want to make big plays. You have to force them to go away from what they do really well.”

[RELATED: Reid 'wouldn't slight Jimmy' when discussing 49ers weapons]

Meanwhile, Garoppolo has to enter this game expecting to put the team on his back after playing an auxiliary role in the 49ers’ 17-point victories over Minnesota and Green Bay in the playoffs.

“If you’re a quarterback and you’ve dreamed of playing in this big moment, you want to be a huge part of why you win, and that’s what you prepare for this week,” Warner said.

Why Andy Reid won't overlook 49ers' passing game before Super Bowl 54

Why Andy Reid won't overlook 49ers' passing game before Super Bowl 54

MIAMI, Fla. -- The 49ers running game is humming. They steamrolled the NFC with a diverse, aggressive rushing attack that seems to expand by the week and is increasingly difficult for defenses to decipher.

San Francisco coach/offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan is doing new and innovative things that has made the ground game so efficient that the 49ers have barely had to pass in the playoffs.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only passed eight times in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, and the air attack essentially shut down halfway through a divisional-round victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

That run-heavy trend isn’t fooling Kansas City Chiefs coach/offensive play-caller Andy Reid. He has great respect for Shanahan’s run design, but he also has great respect for 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Discount him, Reid says, at your own peril.

“Kyle does a great job with his blend of runs," Reid said Tuesday at Miami’s J.W. Marriott Turnberry hotel. "That said, I wouldn’t slight Jimmy. Jimmy can throw the ball well when needed. If you look at his percentages and passer rating over the last few years, it’s up there in every situation. As well as they run the football and as well as they make you honor every gap and zone on the field, you can’t slight the pass game. Our defense is working hard on that, trying to make it right.”

Reid isn’t wrong about Garoppolo performing well in crucial situations. He has a 101.9 passer rating on third down, and an impressive 117.9 rating on third down with seven-to-nine yards to go. He has a 97.8 rating on third and 10 or more, without an interception in those situations.

The Faithful knows Garoppolo can put the ball in harm’s way at times, but he’s aggressive working the ball downfield and giving skill players a chance to gain yards after the catch. His 8.4 yards per attempt ranks third in the NFL, even better than Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his track team of receivers.

[RELATED: Chiefs' Tyreek Hill says 49ers will face one of most explosive offenses ever]

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo considers it difficult to tell what the 49ers will do pre-snap, and they can do so many things well that every offensive aspect must be respected.

As an offensive innovator in his own right, Reid believes Shanahan is pushing the game forward in his own way by giving retro concepts a modern twist.

“He does one heck of a job,” Reid said. “He does a lot of two-back stuff that was popular back in the day and will be coming back because of his success. Football’s a big circle. What’s good today won’t be good tomorrow and will be cool again down the road. He has done a really nice job. He’s really, really sharp.”