Week 15: Top 5 storylines in Bengals-49ers matchup


Week 15: Top 5 storylines in Bengals-49ers matchup

The countdown continues. There are three games remaining in the regular season and time is running out for the 49ers to build optimism for the future.

On Sunday, they face a playoff team minus its quarterback. Andy Dalton is out with a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. Second-year player A.J. McCarron gets his first NFL start. The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the most talented teams in the NFL with a strong roster across the board. The 49ers have played better at home, and they’ll have to put together one of their better games to remain competitive.

Here are the top five storylines heading into Sunday’s game against the Bengals at Levi’s Stadium:

1. Showing up to play
It has been a rough week for coach Jim Tomsula and his coaching staff. Joe Staley and Ahmad Brooks publicly questioned the 49ers’ readiness to play last week against the Cleveland Browns. Tomsula disputed the notion the 49ers’ preparation was lacking. But, then, Browns coach Mike Pettine piled on. We will see just how much the 49ers want to assist Tomsula in keeping his job for a second season. About the only way 49ers CEO Jed York would make the change is if the players stop playing. The team’s effort level will be highly scrutinized.

[RELATED: Browns' Pettine questions 49ers' fight in Week 14]

2. Gabbert’s command
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has thrown a touchdown pass in each of his first five starts. He has thrown just one interception in his past four games. Gabbert has played it safe -- probably too safe. He held onto the ball for a sack on a fourth-and-1 throwback instead of cutting loose a pass to tight end Blake Bell last week. It was fourth down. There was nothing to lose, and he still did not throw the ball. Gabbert can’t play wildly, but he has to picks his spots to take calculated risks. It’s difficult to come up with a scenario in which Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers would want their union to continue next season, so the onus is on Gabbert to show he is not an acceptable option to open the 2016 season as the starter.

3. A game with meaning
A large number of the ticket holders for this game are likely to remain away in frustration due to the lack of intrigue into the 49ers’ season. The 49ers are 4-9, and out of playoff contention. But this is not a meaningless game. The Bengals need to pile up as many victories as possible to continue their pursuit of a first-round playoff bye while trying to hold off the surging Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North. All three of the Bengals’ losses have come in the past five weeks, and now they are forced to turn to McCarron to stop that downward trend.

[RELATED: Marvin Lewis: Bengals not looking past 49ers]

4. Where’s the D?
In recent weeks, Seattle’s Thomas Rawls and Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell have gashed the 49ers on the ground. The 49ers’ run defense has long been one of the strengths of this team, but that certainly has not been the case this season. The 49ers’ defense ranks 31st in the NFL against the run. The 49ers’ defensive line got pushed around last week. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Gerald Hodges were either too slow or over-pursued, and the secondary took bad angles. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard is not exactly a workhorse, but he has big-play ability that will provide a challenge to a 49ers’ defense that has performed much better in home games.

5. Pass protection and the O-line
The 49ers tied an ignominious team record last week with nine sacks allowed. While the offensive line has experienced its share of issues this season, the line was not the only problem. Gabbert didn’t throw the ball when he had some chances, and extra blockers, such as Bruce Miller and Brian Leonhardt, were exploited in pass protection. Alex Boone is expected to miss the remainder of the season with a knee sprain. That pushes Marcus Martin to left guard with Daniel Kilgore making his first start -- and just the eighth of his career -- at center. Boone, a scheduled free agent, is not expected to be back next season, so this lineup could give a further glimpse of what the 49ers will need to address in the offseason.

[RELATED: How 49ers surrendered nine sacks against the Browns]


How Seahawks' Russell Wilson beat 49ers' pass rush with play-action


How Seahawks' Russell Wilson beat 49ers' pass rush with play-action

The 49ers got to Russell Wilson in Monday night's 27-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Wilson was sacked a season-high five times at Levi's Stadium, posting his second-worst passer rating of 2019 (86.9) and a season-low 43.6 QBR. He also threw his second interception of the season and fumbled for the first time since Week 4. 

Yet Wilson did just enough to remain effective in spite of that pressure, showing why he is an MVP frontrunner when he led the Seahawks to their game-winning field-goal drive in overtime. Wilson also employed plenty of misdirection to keep the 49ers' dominant pass rush at bay, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. 

On the season, the 49ers have pressured QBs on 29.7 percent of dropbacks. That 17 percent pressure rate on play-action plays would be 30th-best in the NFL if extended over a full season, just behind the Cincinnati Bengals (17.1 percent) and just ahead of the Oakland Raiders (15.9 percent). 

For reference, those two teams have combined for five fewer sacks (30) than the 49ers have all season. 

Wilson's play-action success could give opposing teams something of a blueprint, and that could trip up the 49ers in their own division down the stretch. In addition to playing the Seahawks once more, the 49ers also will play the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16 at Levi's. Rams coach Sean McVay loves using play-action, and the Rams were far more efficient last season on play-action passes than traditional ones. The Rams have taken a step back this season and the 49ers kept LA's offense in check in Week 6, but play-action remains a big part of the Rams' offense and the 49ers will have to be ready for it.

[RELATED: 49ers ready to focus on Cardinals after tough Seahawks loss]

It doesn't stop with the Seahawks and Rams. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is known for his play-action abilities, too, while Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers also have been better in play-action this season. The 49ers play Green Bay and Arizona in each of the next two weeks. 

San Francisco has a difficult slate of QBs remaining on its schedule, including ones who succeed where Wilson did Monday night. That's one additional area the 49ers will have to shore up down the stretch. 

49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo's 'bad night' surprised NBC Sports' Peter King

49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo's 'bad night' surprised NBC Sports' Peter King

Despite the 49ers not suffering their first loss until Week 10, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his play in 2019.

He has done enough to lead his team to victories in all but one game this season, but the 49ers haven’t had to ask much of their signal-caller thanks to a dominant defense and a highly-potent running game.

His first chance to make a statement against a great team in prime time didn’t go as expected, as Garoppolo was just above a 50 percent completion percentage and had his worst QB rating (66.2) of the year in Monday night’s 27-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

"At one point, I remember looking up at the TV, and I said, 'I cannot remember Jimmy Garoppolo playing with happy feet like this,'" King told Mike Florio and Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk. "Look, this is whatever, like his 18th NFL start, so we don't really know him yet, but that was a bad night for Jimmy Garoppolo and for 49ers fans who want to love him, who want to have faith in him."

The 49ers might have fallen in the team’s first true test of 2019, but there are plenty of worthy opponents on the horizon for San Francisco.

[RELATED: Why 49ers fans should be optimistic after loss to Seahawks]

After hosting the Cardinals in Week 11, San Francisco will take on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a recently flexed matchup on "Sunday Night Football," followed up by trips to Baltimore and New Orleans in consecutive weeks.

So there will be ample opportunity for Jimmy G and his squad to rebound in front of a prime-time audience.