This is my Sunday column.
Five things to watch in Week 14 as the San Francisco 49ers continue their quest to finish 8-8:
1. Blaine Gabbert’s progress
Since Gabbert became the 49ers quarterback Week 9, San Francisco’s offense has averaged just 14.3 points per game (not including overtime). Not a lot of points.
But, that’s not a knock against Gabbert — he’s been facing good defenses. Last week, he faced the Chicago Bears, who have been on fire since their bye. The week before last, Gabbert faced the Arizona Cardinals, who rank fourth in points allowed per game. The week before that, Gabbert faced the Seattle Seahawks who rank third. And the week before that, Gabbert faced the Atlanta Falcons who rank 12th.
We didn’t expect Gabbert to throw dozens of touchdowns passes in those games, or even win those games. But, he won two. He gets credit.
This week, he finally faces an opponent he should feast on. The Cleveland Browns defense is giving up 28.9 points per game this season — second-worst in the NFL. Will Gabbert put up big numbers Sunday, or is 14.8 points his limit?
2. The 49ers’ pass rush
Think of Johnny Manziel as a boxer who has been knocked down twice already in one round. One more knockdown this round and the fight is over. It’s called the three knockdown rule.
That’s where Manziel is, trying to fight off his third knockdown. If he goes down and out, his whole career might be over.
He’s standing in the corner. His legs are wobbling. He doesn’t seem to know where he is or why he’s there. Breathe on him and he’ll go down.
Can the Niners breathe on him? Is their halitosis strong enough?
Yes, if they have outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. Lynch is the Niners’ best (only?) pass rusher, and one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. But, he suffered a concussion last week — actually appeared to lose consciousness on the field after teammate Quinton Dial nailed him in the side of the helmet.
Lynch practiced Friday, but not Wednesday or Thursday. The Niners list him as questionable for Sunday. If he can’t play, the Niners could be in trouble — Manziel’s passer rating is 93.8 when he’s not under pressure. He might avoid knockdown No. 3.
3. NaVorro Bowman’s pass coverage
This has been the most impressive season of NaVorro Bowman’s career.
It’s his first season back from a gruesome knee injury that would have ended most players’ careers, but not Bowman’s. Bowman is on pace to set a career high in tackles, and could win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. He is one of the bravest, most competitive athletes in sports. Not just football.
But, he has a weakness — pass coverage. Bowman used to cover running backs, tight ends, even some wide receivers, and he would shut them down. He moved like a defensive back.
Now, he moves like a guy who had a gruesome knee injury less than two years ago. He isn’t good at backpedaling and changing directions anymore. He’s good when the play is in front of him.
Sunday, he has to cover rookie running back Duke Johnson, who has made 48 catches this season. Only four running backs have made more catches than Johnson.
You bet the Browns will go after Bowman on pass plays. Can Bowman keep up?
4. The team’s energy
The rest of the season is a tryout for head coach Jim Tomsula. If he coaches well, he almost certainly will be 49ers’ head coach again next season. But if the Niners lose to the Browns, all bets are off.
Oddsmakers think the Niners will lose. According to vegasinsider.com, the Browns are 1.5-point favorites despite being the worst team in the NFL.
Why are they the favorite? Because they’re playing at home, and their opponent is 1-5 on the road. San Francisco has played hard in just one road game this season — last week against the Bears.
This week, the Niners have to fly back across the country, past the Central Time Zone and all the way to the Eastern Time Zone. That’s tiring, especially for a team with nothing to play for other than saving the head coach’s job.
Will the Niners play for Tomsula this week?
5. Trent Baalke’s young players
If the rest of the season is a tryout for Tomsula, it’s also a tryout for general manager Trent Baalke.
Eight of Baalke’s draft picks the past two years either will start or play significant roles against the Browns: center Marcus Martin, cornerback Kenneth Acker, nickelback Jimmie Ward, tight end Blake Bell, safety Jaquiski Tartt, outside linebacker Eli Harold, defensive end Arik Armstead and punter Bradley Pinion.
If those eight play well, the Niners will have a promising future which Baalke will be part of. If those eight don’t play well, the Niners may ax Baalke and not Tomsula.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.