San Francisco 49ers

The running game, run defense and other things to watch when the 49ers host the Seahawks

San Francisco’s Matt Breida (22) tries to avoid a tackle by New York Giants middle linebacker B.J. Goodson (93) on Nov. 12, 2018, in Santa Clara. Breida, the 49ers’ leading rusher this season, missed last Sunday’s game against Denver but returned to practice this week and is listed as questionable for the game Seattle on Sunday, Dec. 16.
San Francisco’s Matt Breida (22) tries to avoid a tackle by New York Giants middle linebacker B.J. Goodson (93) on Nov. 12, 2018, in Santa Clara. Breida, the 49ers’ leading rusher this season, missed last Sunday’s game against Denver but returned to practice this week and is listed as questionable for the game Seattle on Sunday, Dec. 16. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Here are five things to watch when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the team’ second meeting this month:

How will Breida’s return impact Wilson?

Running back Matt Breida returned to practice this week after missing last Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos because of a setback with his troublesome left ankle. It was Breida’s first missed game since his freshman year of high school in 2009, when he fractured his arm.

Breida is listed as questionable Sunday, but signs point to his being available so he could share time with rookie Jeff Wilson Jr., who has played well in Breida’s absence. Wilson’s physical running style complements Breida’s speed and decisiveness.

Wilson had a team-high 134 yards from scrimmage against the Seahawks two weeks ago after Breida aggravated his injury during warmups. Wilson also rushed for 90 yards on a robust 23 carries against Denver and could see his targets return against Seattle after catching eight passes in the previous matchup.

Breida has proven to be the 49ers’ most productive back. He averages 5.6 yards per carry and has 744 yards, despite averaging just 11 rushes per game. He needs 256 yards to become San Francisco’s first 1,000-yard back since Frank Gore in 2014.

Slowing the run after ‘lackadaisical’ performance

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner didn’t mince words in his evaluation of the run defense the last time the 49ers played Seattle, allowing a season-worst 168 yards after being stout against the run for most of 2018. He called the performance “lackadaisical.”

“We did a terrible job the first game setting edges at all levels of the defense,” Buckner said this week. “I feel like that’s day 1 football. And we kind of let our fundamentals get away, and I feel like last week we took steps forward in our fundamentals.”

San Francisco rebounded against Denver and will need another strong showing against the Seahawks, particularly with rain in the forecast. Seattle has the top rushing attack in the NFL, averaging nearly 154 yards per game, though they’ll be without talented first-round pick Rashaad Penny because of a knee injury. Penny had 65 yards on seven carries (a 9.3 average) and a touchdown the last time these teams played.

Four of the 49ers’ six best performances against the run have been at Levi’s Stadium, where they allow just over 100 yards per game. Keeping the Seahawks in that range should lead to holding the offense in check.

Can Mullens stay hot with a banged-up WR corps?

Three-hundred of quarterback Nick Mullens’ 414 yards passing against Seattle two weeks ago came after the Seahawks built a 27-3 lead. Mullens completed 19 of his last 30 passes, including two touchdowns to Dante Pettis.

Pettis (foot) landed on the injury report after Thursday’s practice and is listed as questionable. His loss would be significant, as he’s scored four touchdowns the past three games. Fellow wideout Marquise Goodwin (calf) also is questionable. He missed the previous matchup against the Seahawks to deal with a family matter.

And, Pierre Garçon was placed on injured reserve this week to have arthroscopic knee surgery, so Mullens might have a hard time keeping pace with his 373-yard average the past two games.

Mullens could be throwing to second-year players Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor, and rookie seventh-round pick Richie James. The 49ers might telegraph the injury situation with a roster move Saturday to bring up a player from the practice squad such as Victor Bolden Jr., Max McCaffery or Steven Dunbar Jr.

Mix and match in the secondary

All that’s certain is that strong safety Jaquiski Tartt will miss his sixth game because of a shoulder injury. It’s likely rookie Marcell Harris will make his third straight start while free safety and nickel cornerback are up in the air.

Rookie D.J. Reed authored a standout performance against Denver with his team-leading 12 tackles while playing in the slot. But he could be moved back to free safety if K’Waun Williams (knee) is back in the lineup. Williams returned to practice and is listed as questionable. Reed would likely stay in the slot if Williams can’t play, leading to Antone Exum Jr. playing free safety.

If it’s Harris and Reed at the safety spots, the 49ers would be starting their ninth combination of safeties in 14 games. They haven’t started the same safeties in back-to-back games since Weeks 6 and 7, when Tartt played with Adrian Colbert before he went on injured reserve.

No. 1 pick update

The 49ers are one of three teams entering the weekend with a 3-10 record. The Raiders and Cardinals are the others. San Francisco would have the top pick if the draft were to happen today based on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker, not head-to-head matchups, which is a tiebreaker for the playoffs.

The 49ers’ SOS is .485, the Cardinals’ is .515 and the Raiders’ is .570. Here’s how the final three weeks shape up for each:

49ers:

Week 15: vs. Seahawks (8-5)

Week 16: vs. Bears (9-4)

Week 17: at Rams (11-2)

Opponents’ combined record: 28-11 (.718)

Cardinals:

Week 15: at Falcons (4-9)

Week 16: vs. Rams (11-2)

Week 17: at Seahawks (8-5)

Opponents combined record: 23-16 (.590)

Raiders:

Week 15: at Bengals (5-8)

Week 16: vs. Broncos (6-7)

Week 17: @ Chiefs (11-3)

Opponents combined record: 22-18 (.550)

Each of the 49ers’ last three opponents currently are in the playoffs. Two of the Cardinals’ opponents currently are in and one Raiders opponent.

San Francisco might benefit from the Rams sitting their starters in the season finale, depending on whether they can clinch the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Rams lost to the Saints, who own the tiebreaker.

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