Here are five things to watch when the 49ers (1-6) travel to play the Arizona Cardinals (1-6) to determine last place in the NFC West on Sunday at State Farm Stadium.
Who starts at free safety?
The 49ers held a competition this week to see who would start at free safety in place of injured starter Adrian Colbert, who was placed on injured reserve Monday with a high right ankle sprain. Their options: Rookie D.J. Reed Jr. or Jimmie Ward.
Whichever player gets the nod this week and beyond could portend to how coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are approaching the long-term future of the position.
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Ward is in the final season of his contract while making $8.5 million on his fifth-year option. If he’s given a shot and plays well, he could vault himself back into the starting free safety job he held to begin 2017 and earn a lucrative new contract for 2019. He could take it over from Colbert, who last season took it over because because Ward suffered a fractured forearm last November.
If Reed is given a shot, then it could be a clear indication that Ward, who’s dealt with injury issues since being drafted 30th overall in 2014, is entering his final months in red and gold and could test the open market in March.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The 49ers’ issues with turnovers have been well documented. Aside from season-ending injuries to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon, those turnovers have defined their 1-6 start.
San Francisco ranks last both in giveaways (18) and takeaways (three). Quarterback C.J. Beathard has been intercepted seven times and lost three fumbles during his four starts.
“I think a lot of stuff goes into that,” Beathard said this week. “We do what we do in practice, focus on trying to take care of the ball and watching film and seeing their tendencies and which players are good at getting their hands up and reaching for balls and kind of having that in the back of your mind.”
Turnovers defined the outcome when these two teams played Oct. 7 in Santa Clara. The 49ers lost 28-18 despite out-gaining Arizona 447-220 in yardage and owning the advantage in first downs 33-10. But San Francisco lost the turnover battle 5-0, leading to the club’s most disappointing loss since Beathard took over.
Going against a first-time offensive coordinator
The Cardinals have a new offensive coordinator this week after firing Mike McCoy following the 45-10 home loss to the Denver Broncos. Arizona’s offense enters Sunday ranked last in total offense and 31st in scoring, averaging just 13.1 points per game.
So head coach Steve Wilks inserted former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich in McCoy’s place. Leftwich previously worked as a quarterbacks coach and has never called plays, which put San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in a bind this week, given he doesn’t know exactly what kind of offense to prepare for.
“Obviously, he’s going to have his wrinkle,” Saleh said. “They’ve got what they put on tape. Trying to see what he’s been influenced by in his past. We’ll see as the game goes on. Obviously, it’s going to be very important for in-game adjustments to see what they do in-game, but it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with.”
Leftwich spent the past two seasons working under former head coach Bruce Arians, who was known for his aggressive vertical passing game while mixing in running back David Johnson out of the backfield.
Johnson’s production is way down this season — he’s averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and fewer than 4.0 yards per touch, down from 5.7 during his fully healthy 2016 campaign. The Cardinals could be eager to get him going to help rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, whose only win as a starter came against the 49ers.
The Breida and Mostert combination
Matt Breida, who leads the NFL averaging 6.5 yards per carry, will again be questionable to play Sunday after sustaining an ankle injury during the first half of last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
He aggravated the injury that he initially sustained in the first quarter of the loss to the Cardinals earlier this month, which was another pivotal development aside from the offense’s turnovers. Since then, Raheem Mostert has emerged as a viable replacement.
Mostert over the past two games logged 146 yards on 19 carries (7.7 average), helping the 49ers maintain the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack.
Breida was asked what’s changed about Mostert the last two games after logging just 11 yards on five carries, with a fumble, during the loss to Arizona.
“Just his mentality,” Breida said. “He’s always been a good player to me. He’s been a great special-teams player, now he’s getting more opportunities at running back, doing a great job in every opportunity he gets.”
Foster regaining his old form
Reuben Foster hasn’t been himself this season, due largely to continued shoulder issues. But he had his best practice of the season this week, Saleh said, which could signal a turnaround for the second-year linebacker. The 49ers, of course, have high hopes for Foster following his promising rookie campaign.
“He’s going through some stuff, obviously,” Saleh said. “But, it’s not going to stop him from playing. He’s a fighter. He wants to be great. It’s very, very important to him. So, whatever ailment he may have it’s not going to stop him from being on the football field. It might trigger here and there, but he’s not coming off. It’s something he’s just going to have to deal with.”
Foster’s shoulders will be an issue throughout his career. He’s momentarily left a number of games due to stringers and he’s dealt with a shoulder strain in recent weeks that’s hindered his performance.
“I think because of the way he hits and the way he plays, it’s always going to be a part of his game,” Saleh said. “He’s always going to get dinged up. But, at the same time, he’s got such a great mindset that he will fight through all of that stuff. He does want to play and he’s got a tremendous mindset. So, there will be days when he’s fresh and he’s running and hitting, but there’s some days where he’s going to hit somebody so hard that he kind of hurts himself.”