The San Francisco 49ers (4-10) host the Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) on Sunday, in what will be a tough test for the new and improved 49ers, led by Jimmy Garoppolo. The Jaguars are a steamrolling wreaking ball with Super Bowl aspirations. They are more talented than the 49ers at most positions (excluding, perhaps, quarterback and one middle linebacker), and they out-rank the 49ers in nearly every meaningful statistical category. With playoff positioning on the line, the Jaguars will look to come into Santa Clara and crush the lowly 49ers on their way to playoff glory.
This is a game that, taken strictly on paper, the 49ers should lose. The Niners will have to succeed in a multitude of areas – including some in which they have struggled – play nearly perfect football, and force the Jags to make mistakes if they are to keep this football game close, let alone have a chance to win. With all that in mind, the 49ers have three attributes that make them dangerous: A good quarterback, belief in themselves and nothing to lose. Riding a hot streak of their own, and bristling with confidence, there is a path to victory for the 49ers on Sunday, and here it is:
Red Zone Efficiency:
The Jaguars’ offense is on fire in recent weeks, with the NFL’s favorite whipping boy Blake Bortles playing confident, mistake free and efficient football. This includes redzone efficiency: the Jags were an impressive 6/6 in the redzone last week against the Houston Texans, and were a decent 50% the week before against the Seahawks, including 100% in goal-to-goal situations.
The 49ers, by contrast, struggle in redzone efficiency, even with the mighty Garoppolo at the helm. The 49ers have won recently despite this fact through efficient offense and long drives between the 20 yard lines, coupled with Robbie Gould kicking out of his mind. This same inefficiency will not get it done against these Jaguars, who score nearly 27 points/game compared with the Niners’ 18 (interestingly, you’ll notice that 18 is a nice, round, game-full-of-field-goals number).
The 49ers must match the Jags offense in this game, and they are going to need to put up some touchdowns to do it.
49ers’ Offense vs Jaguars’ Defense – Win the Individual Matchups
This is perhaps the single biggest key to victory for San Francisco. Again, on paper, this is a mismatch all over the field. The Jags are 3rd in overall defense, 1st in pass defense, 1st in sacks, and 2nd in interceptions. This contest can’t be whittled down to one individual match-up, or even a match-up of particular units. The Jaguars look to dominate the 49ers in every facet on defense. They have a wicked defensive line and shut down corners. The 49ers offense MUST protect the ball, extend drives, convert on third downs and win the time of possession. Simply put, they have to do what seems impossible – they must dominate the Jaguars’ defense to win this game.
This domination starts at the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars lead the league in sacks with 51. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue are quarterback killing machines, with 14.5 and 11 sacks, respectively. The 49ers’ shaky interior line will be tested on every play, and will need to summon heroic individual efforts in order to give Jimmy Garoppolo enough time to throw. The Jags don’t blitz, which takes away a huge 49er advantage, because Garoppolo won’t be able to cover-up the weaknesses in protection by carving up the blitz.
The Niners’ wide receivers face two lock down cornerbacks on Sunday in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, who between them have collected 10 interceptions. The 49ers’ pass catchers will have to find a way to beat man coverage and make plays. Specifically, this responsibility will fall squarely upon the shoulders of Marquis Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne. In addition to continuing his recent trend of being a chain moving, possession receiver, Goodwin, who is one of the fastest players in the league, must produce a big play or two (or 5). He is the only one capable of truly taking the top off this intimidating defense. The 49ers will not necessarily be able to count on being able to expose gaping holes down the middle of field as they could last week against the Titans.
The 49ers must have big (huge maybe) game(s) from Carlos Hyde and/or Matt Breida. This is the one area where the Jags seem to have a chink in the armor, ranking a middling 19th overall in total rush defense. If there were ever a time for Carlos Hyde to blow up and rush 30 times for 150 yards, or for Breida to pop a 75 yarder, this is it.
49ers Defense vs Jaguars’ Offense
No mystery here. The Jaguars boast the NFL’s number one rushing offense (150 yards/game), and will look to run the football down the 49ers’ throat (49ers rank 22nd in run defense), keep control of the ball and get out of Levis with a methodical, efficient win. And why not? They boast a two headed monster running back combination of Leonard Fournette (923 yards & 4 yards/carry), who as Robert Saleh noted yesterday in his press conference, “moves like he’s 200lbs and hits like he’s 250lbs”. To spell Fournette is the fast, bruising Chris Ivory, who likes to punish would-be tacklers and is a capable starting running back in his own right. The Niners have to find a way to minimize the damage.
All the Jags’ top receivers – Allen Hurns, Marquise Lee and Keelan Cole, are dangerous and can beat any 49ers cornerback on any play. Again, success here will come down to individuals mustering something from within and making plays. This would be a great game for a pick-six from either Dontae Johnson or Ahkello Witherspoon, neither of whom has shown a knack for producing big plays thus far.
Limit the Jaguars’ Rushing Game
This gets its own section because containing the Jacksonville rush game will need to be a function of both the offense and the defense. It does not matter how the 49ers make it happen – they simply must. Most likely it will be through a confluence of factors. Some combination (or better yet, culmination) of stopping the Jaguars on 1st and 2nd down, Reuben Foster forcing some fumbles to go along with those ferocious hits, or the 49ers jumping out to a 17 point lead and forcing the Jags to go one dimensional, is imperative. Otherwise, the 49ers’ defensive line will have to straight buck up, and hold the Jaguars’ runners to less than 3.5 yards/carry. I am not confident this last option is realistic.
Win the Turnover Battle AND MINIMIZE THE FREAKIN’ PENALTIES
Depressing, unfair, but true: Rule number one when you are a team that is out-matched in a football game – you have to play perfectly and they don’t.
The Jags don’t turn the ball over. They are +15 in turnover margin. The 49ers struggle to create turnovers. This can’t be the case on Sunday; the 49ers have to find a way to secure extra offensive possessions. Fumbles, blocked punts, interceptions, whatever. They’ve got to make it happen, and it will come down to multiple players making more plays than they normally do. Part and parcel to this, the 49ers must cut down on penalties, especially in the redzone. They have to play a clean game, free of mental errors. Nothing worse than giving up free yards to a superior team.
Bring Back the Game Changing Play
However the Niners come up with game changing plays, they need to against Jacksonville. Special teams touchdown, 75 yard rushing or passing touchdown(s), pick six, scoop ‘n’ score. Make it happen
It if it seems to you that I am proposing that the Niners need a perfect storm of football dominance to win this game – it’s because I think they do. This is a game that that San Francisco should, by all football logic, lose. But it does not mean they will. They can beat Jacksonville by playing clean, mistake free football in all three phases, making some big plays, forcing turnovers, extending drives and dominating the time of possession. Combine that with a little bit ‘o’ Jimmy G magic and the spirit of the upstart underdog, and San Francisco can pull this one out on Sunday. Enjoy the game!
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