Here are five things to watch on Sunday when the 49ers travel to take on the 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs.
Reuben Foster isn’t the only LB expected to return
Reuben Foster won’t be the only linebacker working back in the fold this week. Veteran Malcolm Smith is expected to make his 49ers debut on Sunday after missing all of 2017 with a torn pectoral and the first two weeks of this season with a balky hamstring.
The 49ers haven’t said how Smith will fit with Foster and promising rookie Fred Warner entrenched inside. But Smith could get a shot at “Sam” linebacker on the strong side of formations, which he hasn’t played since early in his career with the Seahawks. Mark Nzeocha played there during the first two games after Eli Harold was traded to the Lions last month.
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“With all three of those guys, you’ve got a really good combination of speed, instincts and communication,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said this week. “That’s all you really could ask for out of that linebacker spot, not to mention their physicality. It’s a good problem to have.”
The challenge awaiting Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t quite been as efficient or productive for the first two games this season than his five-game stint to end 2017. His passer rating has dipped from 96.2 to 77.4 thanks largely to his three interceptions Week 1. Additionally, his late-game pick against the Lions that was negated by penalty still resonates. The 49ers could have easily lost that game while blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Garoppolo is still averaging nearly eight yards per attempt, which would be elite territory for a season. His issues, along with the rest of the offense, come down to red-zone and third-down efficiency. The 49ers rank 27th and 23rd in those categories, respectively.
And while the Chiefs’ defense has struggled mightily during the first two games, they should play energized in their home opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
“I grew up going to a lot of games there. I always used to think that it was the loudest place in the league,” said Kyle Shanahan, whose father, Mike, was a long-time coach of the division-rival Broncos. “When those fans are going, which I know they will be with the team that they have, it’s as tough of a place to play as any place.”
A banged-up secondary dealing with Chiefs’ elite speed
Free safety Adrian Colbert is the only member of the 49ers starting secondary who didn’t appear on the injury report this week. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s ankle has been problematic, and Shanahan said during a KNBR radio interview Friday morning that he second-guessed the decision to allow Witherspoon to play against the Lions, who picked on him throughout their fourth-quarter comeback attempt.
Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt is dealing with a shoulder injury and missed the first two days of practice before working back on Friday. He’s listed as questionable. Richard Sherman was given Thursday off due to soreness in his heel, but was back on the field Friday and is expected to play.
Regardless, it’s not good to have 75 percent of your secondary hobbled against the league’s most explosive offense.
Receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Chris Conley all have 4.4 speed (or significantly faster, in Hill’s case), which poses a unique challenge to the 49ers’ secondary that is built on length and physicality.
“You just put your hands on them,” Sherman said. “You get physical. You stay on top and do your job. It’s not all predicated on physicality. It’s predicated on being assignment-sound, understanding the holes in the defense and cover up such holes. “
Marquise Goodwin’s impact, in or out
The 49ers planned on making Marquise Goodwin a focal point of their passing game, yet he’s been a non-factor through two weeks after suffering a deep thigh bruise in the first half against the Vikings.
Goodwin’s speed creates space for the team’s other receivers underneath. Without Goodwin, the Lions were able to get physical with San Francisco’s pass catchers to jam things up, which played a significant role in Garoppolo holding on to the ball and taking six sacks, including three in the red zone.
“It’s very important in our offense to have an extremely fast person out there,” Shanahan said. “Any time you have someone who can run by everybody on their field at any given time, it backs people off ... and it also takes pressure off the other guys.”
Goodwin practiced this week, but looked hobbled on his right leg. The team is hoping he’ll be healthy in time for Sunday’s game to take advantage of a Chiefs’ defense that’s allowed 860 yards through the air in two games.
Will Matt Breida’s hot start continue?
Second-year running back Matt Breida entered Week 3 as the NFL’s leading rusher, thanks largely to his 138-yard performance last week against the Lions. He’s averaging a robust 8.4 yards per carry weighted by his 66-yard run touchdown run through Detroit’s defense.
Breida’s only been given 22 rushes through two games while he’s split time with veteran Alfred Morris, who is a more classic between-the-tackles runner. Shanahan must decide if it’s worth increasing Breida’s workload or if he’s best in a part-time role.
Morris has 86 yards on 22 carries, giving him just a 3.3-yard average. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see Breida steadily become the more prominent option starting this weekend in Kansas City.