Coming off their bye week, the San Francisco 49ers will look to end their three-game losing streak when they host the India
napolis Colts on Sunday night. This marks the return of former 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to Santa Clara for the first time since he was traded following the 2019 season.
Here are the five questions I am looking for answers to during this game.
1. Can the 49ers’ offensive line spoil the homecoming of DeForest Buckner?
When San Francisco decided to trade Buckner to Indianapolis they lost a lot more than just his on-field production. Jimmie Ward was asked earlier this week about his feelings on the trade, “You know what Buckner brought to this team. He was the heart and soul when he was here,” said Ward. “We ended up getting Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, but we lost a leader on this defense, on this team, in this building.”
Buckner is ready to face his former teammates, “It’s a little personal if you want to say that,” Buckner said when asked about his emotions heading into Sunday night.
On the field, Buckner has been a force on the Colts’ defense. In 2020 he was named first-team All-Pro, and Buckner this season he again ranks among the league’s best. He’s fifth among defensive tackles with 28 stops and has two sacks.
Buckner will provide quite a challenge for a 49ers offensive line that has struggled along with the interior, especially center Alex Mack and right guard Daniel Brunskill. Both Mack and Brunskill struggle to generate movement in the run game and get beat often in pass protection. If those two don’t step up on Sunday night, Buckner could make it a long night for the 49er’s offense.
2. Will Jimmy Garoppolo make a strong return?
After missing the second half of the 49er’s loss to Seattle and the Arizona game with an injured calf, Jimmy Garoppolo will return to the starting lineup on Sunday night.
The forecast calls for rain throughout the game on Sunday night, marking the first game in the rain at Levi’s Stadium since the 49ers hosted the Seattle Seahawks in week 12 of the 2017 season. What’s notable about that game is it marked the debut of Garoppolo with the 49ers. In an otherwise dreary game, Garoppolo would thrill the home crowd with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy on his second throw in a 49ers uniform.
San Francisco’s most recent game in conditions similar to what is expected on Sunday night came in 2019 when they faced Washington in a downpour. The 49ers would come out on top 9-0 and Garoppolo would go 12-21, 151 yards and an interception. Garoppolo will need to improve on that performance to come out on top against Indianapolis.
3. Can the 49ers’ offense generate explosive plays?
When fullback Kyle Juszczyk was asked Thursday about the issues facing the 49ers run game, his response actually could help explain why the entire offense has struggled to generate points in 2021.
“I feel like that’s what defines this league and makes great offenses is when you see these explosive plays. It’s tough in this league to go up and down the field, 10-12 play drives, and consistently do that and go score touchdowns,” said Juszczyk.
The San Francisco offense currently ranks 28th in the NFL in explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined as runs that gain 10 or more yards or passes that gain 15 or more yards. Only 8% of the 49ers’ 315 plays meet that criterion. A far cry from 2019 when the offense ranked second in this category at 13%. This drop represents three explosive plays per game less in 2021.
While the running game has seen a drop of approximately one per game from the 2019 level, it’s the passing game that has been most impacted. In 2019, 12% of 49ers’ pass plays went for 15 yards or more. That number has dropped to only 7% this season.
To bridge the gap the 49ers don’t necessarily need to push the ball down the field more in the passing game. Rather, they need to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers by any means possible. Finding ways to get more touches for an explosive player like Brandon Aiyuk should be the primary focus of the 49er’s offense over the next 12 weeks.
4. Can the 49ers defense contain Jonathan Taylor?
Speaking of explosive plays, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the best in the NFL. Through the first six weeks of the season 19.5% of Taylor’s rushing attempts have gained 10 or more yards, the second-year player is averaging just under three per game.
San Francisco’s run defense has been a little hot and cold this season, however, they’ve done a better job in recent weeks of limiting the big plays on the ground. With the weather conditions calling for rain, the 49ers’ defense could face a steady dose of Taylor throughout the game and will need to limit the big runs.
5. Will the 49ers defense get to Carson Wentz?
For the second season in a row, the 49ers will face Wentz at Levi’s Stadium. Last year Wentz led the Philadelphia Eagles a 28-18 victory over San Francisco. In that Sunday night contest, Wentz opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown run and later hit Travis Fulgham with a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Eagles a lead which they would not relinquish.
Wentz was traded to Indianapolis this offseason, and after a slow start to the season has begun to turn things around. Over the last four weeks,
Wentz has gone 79-124, 1,047 yards, and six touchdowns with no interceptions while leading the Colts to a 2-2 record.
The top target for Wentz has been Michael Pittman Jr. The second-year receiver from USC already has nearly the same numbers as he did during his rookie season and should draw plenty of attention from the 49ers secondary.
49ers 17 Colts 16