Here are five things to watch Sunday when the 49ers try to help spoil the Denver Broncos’ playoff hopes in their Week 14 matchup.
A ‘dead-even’ quarterback situation
The rest of 2018 for the 49ers is all about laying the foundation for what should be another eventful offseason for coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. And with quarterback Nick Mullens handling himself well since taking over for an injured C.J. Beathard on Nov. 1 against the Raiders, it appears Mullens might be overtaking Beathard for the right to back up Jimmy Garoppolo when he returns from his knee injury in 2019.
But that’s not the case just yet. Shanahan said Friday he considers Mullens and Beathard in the same standing when it comes to the depth chart for next season, even after Mullens’ led the offense to a season-high 452 yards last week against the Seahawks.
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“If the season ended now, they’d both be going into the offseason competing,” Shanahan said. “Definitely C.J. was our (second stringer) and Nick was our (third stringer) and Nick came in and got his opportunity because C.J. was hurt and he’s done good enough to keep that in all four of the games he’s played.
“We’ll see how that goes for these next four (games), but it was nothing against C.J. Nick came in and played well and there hasn’t been a reason to put C.J. back in yet, based off of Nick. So they’re dead even to me. I know C.J. really wants another opportunity before this year ends. I can’t guarantee that for him. We’ll see how these games play out. But, I see them having a pretty good competition going into next year.”
Mullens’ start Sunday will be his fifth, which is the same number Beathard has this season. Mullens owns the edge in passing yards per game (286.8 to 250.4), completion percentage (64.5 to 60.4), yards per attempt (7.5 to 6.5) and passer rating (91.5 to 81.8). Mullens was also at the helm for the victory over the Raiders, while San Francisco is 0-5 in Beathard’s starts (and 1-9 dating back to last season).
Shanahan has typically kept two quarterbacks on the active roster. But the 49ers have started three quarterbacks in each of the last two seasons, which means there’s a reasonable case for three quarterbacks on the 53 in 2019.
But the order of those quarterbacks has not yet been determined – and the final four games of 2018 should provide meaningful context while Shanahan decides.
49ers tackles versus Broncos pass rushers
Denver’s situation at pass rusher mirrors San Francisco’s tackle situation to a degree. Long-time stalwart Von Miller is playing mentor to a rookie defensive end Bradley Chubb, No. 5 overall draft pick last spring.
For the 49ers, left tackle Joe Staley is also playing mentor to rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey, taken four spots behind Chubb. McGlinchey will likely spend the majority his afternoon blocking Miller, while Staley is expecting to line up opposite Chubb. It’s shaping up to be a battle of strength on strength.
McGlinchey has gotten off to a strong start to his 49ers career and looks like a long-term building block, similar to Staley when he was drafted in the first round in 2007.
But McGlinchey hasn’t gone up against a pass rusher like Miller, who is arguably the off the edge of the last decade (McGlinchey will also have a chance to block Khalil Mack when the Chicago Bears come to Levi’s Stadium Dec. 23).
“He’s just crazy athletic,” McGlinchey said of Miller. “He’s got one of the best first steps that you’ve ever seen.”
Miller is second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks and has logged at least half a sack in seven straight games. He had 1.5 last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, and 3.5 during Denver’s current three-game winning streak.
“It’s a big opportunity to be able to play a guy like that, a once-in-a-generation type of player,” said McGlinchey. “It’s going to be a great challenge. He’s so, so good. I’m going to hopefully prove that I’m really good too and it’s going to be a hell of a fight on Sunday.”
Scouting service Pro Football Focus says McGlinchey is the NFL’s top rookie offensive lineman based on their grading. He’s allowed four sacks and 16 hurries on the season, while Staley has allowed four sacks and 13 hurries.
Chubb, meanwhile, leads all rookies with 10 sacks and ranks 10th in the NFL overall.
More change on the back end on defense
Safety Jaquiski Tartt has been ruled out with a shoulder injury, making Sunday the fifth time his bothersome shoulder has caused him to sit this season. Tartt’s absence also means the 49ers are expected to start their eighth different combination of safeties in 2018, which undoubtedly has played a role in their coverage breakdowns throughout the year.
“The acceleration of how much better you can get from week to week,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, “there is an art to being able to see the same things over and over and over again. Then, when you move to a new spot, fixing your lens so you can see it as many times as possible – it’s never really an excuse. No excuse.”
It’s likely rookie sixth-round pick Marcell Harris gets his second straight start at strong safety, with D.J. Reed or Antone Exum Jr. playing free safety.
Reed’s role could depend on the status of slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, who’s listed as questionable to play after showing up on the injury report with a knee injury Thursday. Reed is the primary backup in the slot, and also the de facto third-string free safety behind Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward, who are both on injured reserve. Exum has gotten time at both safety spots.
San Francisco enters Sunday’s game ranked 13th in opponents’ passing yards per game, which is serviceable considering the constant shuffling of the secondary. But the more problematic and telling statistics are interceptions (two, dead last) and opponents’ scoring (28 points per game, 29th).
Can the rookie running back do it again?
Matt Breida is going to miss his first game of the season to rest his chronic left ankle injury. It’ll be the first time he’ll sit out a game due to injury since his freshmen year of high school when he fracture his arm, he said.
That means undrafted rookie Jeff Wilson Jr. will be given an encore following his impressive game against the Seahawks last week when he led with 134 yards from scrimmage.
Shanahan prizes versatility from his running backs, and Wilson might be the team’s most well-rounded back this season. He had a game-high eight receptions for 73 yards while Breida has never logged more than four during his two years in the NFL.
Wilson, in essence, is San Francisco’s fourth-string running back behind Jerick McKinnon (injured reserve, ACL), Breida (ankle) and Raheem Mostert (IR, fractured arm). The 49ers will likely re-activate Alfred Morris for Sunday after he was a healthy scratch the past two games.
Goodwin’s return changes up receiving corps
The 49ers offense has been its most dynamic and versatile when receiver Marquise Goodwin can use his speed to provide a deep threat and create space for everything else Shanahan likes to dial up underneath. And no matter who’s been at quarterback, San Francisco has been far easier to slow when Goodwin misses games.
But Goodwin will be back this week following a two-game absence for a personal family issue. He participated in every team meeting and practice this week for the first time since leaving the 49ers to fly back to the Bay Area Nov. 24 before the Buccaneers game.
“It’s been awesome, man, just to feel the love from my team,” Goodwin said Friday. “... Just being around them and preparing for this week, it’s been great for my morale personally. And hopefully that adds a different element on game day for the whole team.”
Goodwin’s return means rookie Dante Pettis will have to switch roles from the “X” receiver spot, normally occupied by Goodwin, to the “Z,” which is typically Pierre Garçon. But Garçon will miss his fourth straight game due to an ongoing knee injury despite practicing early this week.
Shanahan has indicated the injury could be significant enough to land Garçon on injured reserve. But that hasn’t happened yet because of the recent uncertainty surrounding Goodwin. Rookie Richie James and second-year player Trent Taylor could see their roles increase if Garçon winds up getting shut down for the season.