Here are five things to watch Sunday when the 49ers take on the winless Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.
Holding down the rookie quarterback
The Cardinals last week turned over the reins to No. 10 overall draft pick Josh Rosen to start in place of veteran Sam Bradford. Rosen threw for 180 yards while completing 56 percent of his passes in the last-second loss to the Seahawks. The UCLA star tossed his first career touchdown pass to receiver Chad Williams midway through the fourth quarter, and came out of the game without throwing an interception.
“He’s a very good thrower,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He made some very good throws in that game. They definitely, I believe, should have won that game. They had two big (catches) that were dropped, I think two touchdowns. It was impressive. So, as similar to college, we know we’re going against a good player. He definitely helps them.”
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Sunday will mark Rosen’s first road start of his NFL career. The 49ers enter with the league’s 19th-ranked defense in average yardage (381) and 27th in opponents’ scoring (29.5). But Shanahan said he’s expecting to have both starting safeties back after Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert missed the bulk of the last two games. Tartt returned this week from a shoulder injury while Colbert is feeling better coming off a hip injury. He played last week against the Chargers, but was limited to special teams.
Can Beathard build off promising performance?
C.J. Beathard showed significant improvement in his 2018 starting debut last week in L.A., throwing for a career-high 298 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown to tight end George Kittle. It was the NFL’s longest play from scrimmage this season.
“I think he’s gotten better knowing where people are, faster with it,” Shanahan said. “That happens the more you play in a system. So, he’s much further ahead this year than he was last year.”
Beathard has become known for his toughness, evident by the fourth-quarter scramble that temporarily took him out of the game after he tried reaching to convert a crucial third down deep in Chargers territory.
Keeping Beathard healthy and avoiding those big hits has been a hot topic of discussion this week after San Francisco decided against adding a veteran quarterback as an insurance policy. If anything were to happen to Beathard, the 49ers would call upon former undrafted rookie Nick Mullens, who was recently promoted from the practice squad.
“There’s definitely a fine line between getting the extra yard and getting down and protecting yourself,” Beathard said. “You don’t want to get hurt and be out for any game, and that’s something I’ll definitely work on is getting down. If the game’s on the line, fourth down, you’ll try to get that extra yard.”
Tackling, tackling, tackling
The 49ers have been among the league leaders in missed tackles, and against the Chargers, it also showed up on special teams, where San Francisco was charged with five. A handful came on a punt return late in the second quarter that resulted in a field goal.
It was a crucial moment in the two-point defeat for a special-teams crew that has generally been sound in punt coverage over the last two campaigns.
Defensively, the 49ers had a hard time in the second half against star running back Melvin Gordon III. The Cardinals also have a potent running back San Francisco will have to contend with this week in David Johnson, who will likely be relied upon heavily to help out Rosen in his first start away from State Farm Field (formerly known as University of Phoenix Stadium).
Gordon, on a run up the far sideline Sunday, broke tackles from cornerback Greg Mabin and rookie safety D.J. Reed, leading to a 34-yard gain that set up another field goal. Mabin and Reed appeared to be more concerned with ripping the ball out than making the tackle.
“When you give a back confidence, who is already good, it adds to it and now you start trying to get the ball out as a defense. You just lose your fundamentals because you’re trying to chase something else,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “The main thing is to get him down the first time. First guy in, wrap up like we talk about. Step on his toes, take the grass, however you want to word it. We can’t allow these backs to gain momentum.”
How will health affect the game?
Rookie receiver Dante Pettis (knee) has been the only 49er ruled out for Sunday’s game. But there are seven players listed as questionable, including three members of the starting offensive line, and four other would-be starters.
Running back Matt Breida (shoulder), receiver Marquise Goodwin (quad, hamstring), tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee), center Weston Richburg (knee), tackle Joe Staley (knee), cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) and defensive back Jimmie Ward (hamstring) are all uncertain to play.
However, it appears Staley, Richburg, McGlinchey and Breida are expected to suit up. The decision on Goodwin could be made Saturday, allowing the 49ers to promote wideout Victor Bolden Jr. to the 53-man roster after starting the season on a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing substance policy.
Ward’s injury popped up late in Thursday’s practice, Shanahan said, which isn’t good news considering his long history of soft-tissue injuries. Ward was part of the cornerback rotation last week with Sherman out. If Sherman plays, Mabin and Ahkello Witherspoon are the likely options on the right side of the field.
It could come down to conversions
The 49ers last week converted a season-high 41.7 percent of third-down conversions against the Chargers (5-12), yet they still rank 25th in the NFL having converted 33 percent on the season. The Cardinals’ defense has typically done well on third down, holding opponents to just under 37 percent to rank 12th.
But Arizona’s defense has struggled in the red zone, which could be encouraging to San Francisco. The Cardinals have allowed touchdowns on 60 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line, while the 49ers have netted touchdowns on just 6 of 16 red-zone appearances, good for the third-worst mark in the NFL.