Here are five things to watch when the 49ers host the Oakland Raiders on prime time Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium.
1. Who’s playing quarterback?
C.J. Beathard returned to practice in a limited capacity Wednesday, indicating his right wrist and thumb improved from Tuesday when he struggled to grip a football. Beathard, of course, is known for toughing out aches and pains, which points to him playing Thursday night.
Remember, Beathard played through a painful sports hernia injury in 2015 at Iowa, helping the Hawkeyes reach the Rose Bowl. The expectation inside the locker room Tuesday was that Beathard would figure out a way to play — and he said as much.
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If not, then it will be second-year pro Nick Mullens under center, who has never taken a regular season snap after going undrafted from Southern Mississippi in 2017. He impressed during the preseason going against players who are mostly unemployed or on practice squads at the moment.
But the 49ers could take a ‘why-not?’ approach to Thursday’s game given they are 1-7 and could benefit from a loss by way of NFL draft positioning. They share the worst record in the NFL with the New York Giants — and the possibility of adding a potential star pass rusher in Nick Bosa with the No. 1-overall pick has to be intriguing.
2. Will the banged-up defense respond?
The 49ers ruled out linebacker Reuben Foster (hamstring) and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder), which will force them to replace two of their most dynamic players in the middle of the defense.
Veteran Malcolm Smith should provide a decent backup option with Foster sidelined, but the 49ers will have to reach far deeper down the depth chart to replace Tartt.
Tyvis Powell, a third-stringer, is likely to start — even after he was picked on heavily in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals scored a pair of late touchdowns to beat San Francisco over the weekend.
Powell was in the game because Tartt’s regular backup, Antone Exum Jr., suffered a concussion in Arizona and has been ruled out against Oakland. Perhaps increased practice reps this week will help Powell, who was switched to safety in August because the 49ers were dealing with injuries behind Tartt.
However, one of those injured players could make his debut Thursday. Rookie sixth-round pick Marcell Harris (hamstring) is eligible to return to the active roster from injured reserve after a preseason hamstring strain. It seems unlikely the 49ers would throw him into the fire his first game back. But the fact he made the team despite being injured, and played scantly in the preseason, indicates the team is high on him.
3. Will the running game continue to work?
The 49ers haven’t been good at much in 2018. But they can hang their hat on their ability to run the ball — which is particularly notable given they’ve played without their top runner, Jerick McKinnon, who was lost a week before the season with a knee injury.
San Francisco, on the strength of running backs Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, enters Thursday with the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing attack (which dropped from second going into the past game in Arizona). Breida’s play has been particularly promising, though he’s been banged up throughout the year.
Mostert emerged three games ago with a 12-carry, 87-yard performance against the Packers, but he’s questionable to play after suffering an ankle injury Sunday. Same for Breida, who hasn’t missed a game this season despite dealing with chronic ankle, knee and shoulder injuries. Both players excel in outside runs, which the 49ers have blocked well for.
Fortunately for San Francisco, there might not be a better defense to run against than Oakland. The Raiders are last in the league, allowing 145 yards on the ground each week. And given the 49ers will either have a banged-up Beathard or Mullens making his debut under center, they’ll surely rely on their running game to wear down the Silver and Black on a short week.
4. Can the 49ers hit the brakes on the Carr?
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has been playing better over the last three games, completing 74 percent of his passes with four touchdowns to just one interception, good for a passer rating of 103.3 (he had six touchdowns and seven picks the first four games).
The 49ers defense, meanwhile, has allowed six touchdown passes and made just one interception over the last three weeks, which included allowing two fourth-quarter comebacks against the Packers and Cardinals.
Cornerback Richard Sherman (calf, heel) is questionable to play. If he does, the 30-year-old will be a little hobbled coming off a short week. And Ahkello Witherspoon on the other side hasn’t been reliable this season, though his play has improved of late.
Jimmie Ward played well for most of his debut at free safety Sunday after beginning the year at cornerback, but the Carr could rely heavily on tight end Jerod Cook while the 49ers start one of their reserves at strong safety. Cook (474 yards) is easily Oakland’s leading pass catcher.
Carr’s 94.5 passer rating is quietly the second-best of his career, behind only his 2016 campaign when he posted a 96.7 rating while helping the Raiders go 12-3 in his starts.
5. Can Kittle score?
The Raiders allowed three touchdowns to three different tight ends last week against the Colts (Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox had one apiece).
If the running game has been the 49ers’ most consistent weapon on offense, tight end George Kittle is 1A. The second-year pro from Iowa ranks third among all tight ends with 584 receiving yards, which puts him on pace to become the 49ers’ first tight end in history to eclipse 1,000. Vernon Davis’ 965 in 2009 is the team’s record at the position.
But Kittle has just two receiving touchdowns on the season, with one coming from 82 yards out against the Chargers in Week 4. Kittle should be the team’s top option in the red zone, but he’s scored just one touchdown inside the 20-yard line this season. Related: San Francisco ranks 27th in the NFL, converting just 46 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns.