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.
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.