Here are five things to watch when the San Francisco 49ers host the New York Giants on Monday Night Football to cap Week 10 at Levi’s Stadium.
Can Mullens back up his debut?
Second-year quarterback Nick Mullens set a high bar in his historic debut against the Raiders. Can he back it up with another strong showing and earn the starting job over C.J. Beathard when the 49ers return from their bye against Tampa Bay?
Mullens is known for his intelligence and work ethic, which allowed him to run coach Kyle Shanahan’s entire playbook unencumbered. It’s rare a third-string quarterback will have that leeway, particularly a player who spent last season on the practice squad and received no reps with the offense.
Mullens is limited physically, the top reason he was not drafted out of Southern Mississippi in 2017. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm, which is evident on throws toward the outside and downfield.
The Giants will likely do their best to clog the middle of the field and force Mullens to make those longer throws. He didn’t complete any pass longer than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage against Oakland, according to Pro Football Focus.
Further, Mullens will be without receiver Pierre Garçon, who missed practice this week while dealing with his knee injury. Garçon had three catches for 56 yards last week, including the 24-yard touchdown to cap Mullens’ first possession in the NFL.
Will the secondary continue to gel?
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon strung together solid performances in recent weeks after starting slow in his second season. He’ll face arguably his toughest test of the year against Giants Pro-Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who’s averaging 98 yards per game while catching 67 percent of his targets from Eli Manning. New York would be wise to pit Beckham on Witherspoon’s side of the field, not Richard Sherman’s.
The 49ers also hope Jimmie Ward can continue to play well at his new position - free safety. Ward has had two strong starts since replacing the injured Adrian Colbert.
Ward is unsigned beyond this season and could force the 49ers to consider bringing him back if he stays healthy, which has been his primary issue since entering the league as a first-round draft choice in 2014.
“We have always felt he is one of our best 11 players,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “We don’t keep that a secret. For him, the challenge is going to be to stay healthy. When he is out there, he puts on really good tape.”
The 49ers will be without strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and will likely rely on former undrafted free agent Tyvis Powell to take over. San Francisco could also mix in rookie sixth-round pick Marcell Harris, who made his debut against the Raiders after beginning the year on injured reserve.
Will Breida be able to carry the load on his own?
The 49ers last week placed running back Raheem Mostert on season-ending injured reserve after he gruesomely fractured his right arm in the second half against the Raiders. That means Matt Breida - who has dealt with ankle, knee and shoulder issues - has lost a productive backup that has helped split the load in recent games.
Mostert led San Francisco in rushing yards in three of the last four weeks while averaging 8.9 yards per carry. Breida began the year among the league leaders in rushing, but a recent ankle injury, along with Mostert’s uptick in production, has led to averaging just 3.1 yards per carry since the Oct. 21 loss to the Rams.
The good news: Breida should be healthier this week with 11 days between games.
Can the defense stay in front of Barkley?
The 49ers averaged more than 10 missed tackles per game over the first seven weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. But they’ve had just nine over the last two weeks. Giants rookie Saquon Barkley could be the best running back San Francisco faces this season, and could be the toughest to bring down in the open field, testing the team’s improved tackling.
“God, he is dynamic,” Saleh said. “For his size, it’s very deceptive because it doesn’t look like he is moving, but the son of a gun is moving. He’s got tremendous balance. He’s got great feet.”
Barkley, the second overall pick in the draft, averages 4.7 yards per attempt, but he’s been given fewer than 15 carries in five of New York’s eight games. He’s second on the team in targets (71, behind Beckham’s 91) and has 497 receiving yards.
“I don’t want to put him in Barry Sanders’ world yet. He’s got a chance, but he just has a knack,” Saleh said. “He’s got great patience. He finds holes. He makes people miss.”
Barkley (6-0, 233) at the NFL combine ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, jumped 41 inches in the vertical and logged 29 reps in the bench press, one of the best overall performances from a running back in years.
And San Francisco will likely be without arguably its best matchup for Barkley in linebacker Reuben Foster, who has a hamstring injury. The 49ers will replace him with veteran Malcolm Smith, who was in and out against Oakland while dealing with undisclosed injuries.
Can Goodwin do it again?
It will be a year to the day since the 49ers last faced the Giants, when receiver Marquise Goodwin played despite losing his stillborn son the morning of the game after his wife dealt with complications in her pregnancy.
Goodwin was overcome with emotion when he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Beathard in the second quarter, helping San Francisco win its first game following a nine-game losing streak to begin Shanahan’s tenure.
That was Goodwin’s first touchdown of the season. He leads the 49ers with four in 2018 and is one of the offense’s most important players given the way defenses must account for his game-breaking speed.
But Goodwin managed just one catch on four targets with Mullens at quarterback against Oakland. And, Mullens’ lack of arm strength could impact Goodwin as a home-run threat, thus allowing the Giants to stack the box to stop the run.