San Francisco 49ers

Five 49ers to watch in Week 15: Ben Garland takes center stage vs. Falcons

Five 49ers to watch in Week 15: Ben Garland takes center stage vs. Falcons

SANTA CLARA – What do the 49ers have left in the tank after their wild Week 14 win in New Orleans?

Apparently, quite a lot.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk emerged earlier this week from an offensive installation meeting in preparation to face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. He scoffed at the question of whether coach Kyle Shanahan exhausted the playbook in the team’s 48-46 victory over the Saints on Sunday.

“Believe it or not, yeah, there’s a lot left,” Juszczyk said of the coaching staff’s plan against the Falcons. “They’re not backing down. This is not a game that we’re taking lightly or overlooking. We’re putting our best foot forward as if this is the biggest game of the year.”

The 49ers (11-2) lead the NFC West over the Seattle Seahawks (10-3). San Francisco currently holds the best record in the NFC and cannot afford a slip-up at this point in the season against Dan Quinn’s 4-9 Falcons.

Here is this week’s list of players who could be the difference between a 49ers win or an upset loss against Atlanta:

5. TE George Kittle

If the 49ers are playing a game, you almost have to include either Jimmy Garoppolo or George Kittle (or both) on this list of players to watch.

Garoppolo is coming on strong with more experience and more reliable targets in the passing game, including Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. But when the 49ers need a play – or an injection of enthusiasm or momentum – they generally turn to Kittle.

Kittle is such a huge part of the 49ers’ offense both in the passing game and as a run-blocker. His stats are not nearly as impressive as a year ago when he set the NFL single-season record of 1,377 yards receiving from a tight end. But he probably is a better all-around player.

Kittle makes this team go.

4. RB Raheem Mostert

Raheem Mostert has appeared in 47 games in his five-year NFL career. He has yet to start a game, technically, but he’s often been on the field for the opening kickoff because of his role on special teams.

But Mostert has quickly turned into the 49ers’ leading rusher and the team’s top running back. When the 49ers faced a make-or-break final drive against New Orleans in Week 14, Mostert was on the field.

Mostert has gained a team-leading 608 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 102 attempts for an average of 6.0 yards per carry. Mostert has elite, world-class speed that places him in scoring position every time he touches the ball.

3. CBs Ahkello Witherspoon, Emmanuel Moseley

Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman will not play Sunday due to a right hamstring injury. The 49ers will turn to Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley to cover the Falcons’ group of wideouts, including the incomparable Julio Jones.

Jones is in the midst of his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. He has 69 receptions for 1,016 yards in 12 games for an Atlanta offense that dropped 40 points just last week on the Carolina Panthers.

Jones (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) is a handful for any cornerback. The 49ers will play sides and not have one specific player shadowing Jones across the field, so both Witherspoon and Moseley will be tested throughout the course of the game.

2. DL Solomon Thomas

The 49ers’ defensive line has taken some hits in recent weeks. Nose tackle D.J. Jones is out for the season with a severe high-ankle sprain. The 49ers could be without edge rusher Dee Ford for the remainder of the regular season due to a hamstring injury.

The 49ers will turn to Solomon Thomas to help pick up the slack both as an interior player on run downs and as an edge rusher in nickel situations.

Thomas may never live up to the lofty expectations that came with being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft. But he can serve a valuable role for the 49ers down the stretch and into the playoffs if he can beat one-on-one blocks to make plays.

Thomas had a third-down sack last week against Drew Brees in the fourth quarter that was nullified by Sherman’s defensive holding penalty. He has to play well and make plays on a more consistent basis to take the pressure off Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.

1. C Ben Garland

Only one person other than Garoppolo touches the ball on every 49ers’ offensive play, and that player will be making his first start with the organization on Sunday.

In Shanahan’s system, there is a lot of responsibilities on the team’s center and offensive guards. Ben Garland steps into the lineup to replace Weston Richburg, who sustained a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his right knee against the Saints.

[RELATED: Ravens and Saints, not Seahawks, are best 49ers have faced]

Garland played well in his 36 snaps amidst the deafening noise of the Superdome in the 49ers’ victory over the Saints. He showed his agility and knowledge of the system in getting out front on a couple of plays that went for good yardage.

Garland will face a big test on Sunday against Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who has 5.5 sacks this season and will try to get push up the middle to disrupt Garoppolo’s ability to step up and deliver the ball down the field.

Saints, Ravens are two best teams 49ers have faced, Emmanuel Sanders says

Saints, Ravens are two best teams 49ers have faced, Emmanuel Sanders says

The 49ers have run through the gauntlet over the last five weeks, and come out the other side. 

San Francisco opened a brutal five-game stretch with an overtime loss to the Seahawks, but then proceeded to reel off wins over the Cardinals, Packers and Saints, with a loss to the Ravens sandwiched in between. That three-game stretch against the Packers, Ravens and Saints was the most difficult stretch any team has faced this late in the season in the modern NFL era, and yet the Niners emerged at 11-2 and primed for a deep playoff run.

Now that the 49ers have faced their toughest foes, and the postseason is in their sights, it's fair to wonder which team or teams the 49ers believe are the best they have faced this season.

For wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the answer is easy.

"Definitely either the Saints or Baltimore, for sure," Sanders told "The Dan Patrick Show." "Those two teams are really good, and I hope we’ll play both of those two teams again."

The Ravens and likely MVP Lamar Jackson sit at 12-2 after a Thursday night beatdown of the Jets. The 49ers and Ravens dueled in the rain two weeks ago, a game the Ravens eked out on a last-second Justin Tucker field goal. The Saints hung 46 points on the vaunted 49ers defense and would have collected the W had George Kittle not broke off the most important play of San Francisco's season to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. 

[RELATED: 49ers saw 'layup' coming on Saints' two-point try]

But what about the team that handed the 49ers their first loss, the Seahawks? Russell Wilson and Co. momentarily leapfrogged the 49ers for first place in the NFC West in Week 13 but gave the spot right back after laying an egg against the Rams last Sunday.

The race for the NFC West and a first-round bye likely will come down to Week 17 when the 49ers travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks to close out the season. The winner will get a week of rest and ticket to the Divisional Round, while the loser likely will be headed to either Dallas or Philadelphia for a Wild Card Round bout against the Eagles or Cowboys. 

There's a good chance the 49ers could see the Saints again in the NFC playoffs. If San Francisco navigates the final three weeks successfully that game would take place in Levi's Stadium and not the raucously loud Superdome. A return trip to New Orleans is something the Niners would love to avoid.

As for a second meeting with Jackson. Well, Miami sounds lovely in February.

Falcons hope to avoid having 49ers star George Kittle steamroll them

Falcons hope to avoid having 49ers star George Kittle steamroll them

George Kittle cemented his status as one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Week 14, as the third-year pass-catcher put the 49ers in position to win a wild game in New Orleans with a Marshawn Lynch-esque "Beastmode" run after catch to set up Robbie Gould’s walk-off 30-yard field goal.

As Week 15 comes into focus, and the Atlanta Falcons prepare to take the field at Levi’s Stadium, their defense is locked in on their top priority: Slowing down Kittle.

“He’s really aggressive after the catch,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think that’s the yards per catch. Sometimes you see that in man-to-man where he beats the guy and he’s going to play aggressively to break a tackle. He’s had good yards after contact.”

“They have a tight end that is playing as well as any tight end in the NFL right now,” linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “He’s a matchup problem for the small athletic guys. A matchup problem for the big, but not as fast guys.” 

Kittle has backed up his breakout sophomore campaign in 2018 with another phenomenal season. Despite missing two games due to injury, Kittle is fourth among tight ends in catches and receiving yards, and currently has a higher Pro Football Focus grade (93.6) than former Patriots standout Rob Gronkowski ever put together over a season.

Where the 26-year-old Kittle truly thrives -- as Quinn noted -- is after the catch. Over the past two seasons, he blows away all NFL pass-catchers in yards after catch per reception (8.8). The next closest over that span? Giants tight end Evan Engram, with 7.2.

Atlanta's defense can consult their division rival Saints, who needed three defensive backs and a facemask penalty to bring Kittle down on the game-clinching penultimate play.

[RELATED: Stat proves 49ers star Kittle indeed is strong run blocker]

The Falcons, who have gotten back on track recently after a disastrous start to the season, know it will take an army to slow down the 49ers' most dynamic player.

“You’ll have different guys guarding him,” Quinn said. “When you have a good player like that, it’s not usually one-man assignment.”