The San Francisco 49ers continue to impress with Jimmy Garoppolo running the show at quarterback after adding the scalp of the potentially playoff bound Tennessee Titans to those of the struggling Giants, Bears and Texans. It was a statement win by the Niners, who offered a tantalizing glimpse into their potential quality despite missing several important players to injury and being hamstrung by an appalling performance by their interior offensive line. Week 16 will bring the rejuvenated 49ers’ toughest challenge of the season however, as they face what is arguably the most talented team in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yes, you just read that. Honest.
49ers utilize Patriots passing plays to make Garoppolo comfortable
This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but shows the flexibility of Kyle Shanahan and his offensive staff. A play that the 49ers ran a lot against the Titans’ cover 3 (and something that they can utilize against the Jaguars who also love to run cover 3) had the two outside receivers running hitch routes, the two inside receivers running seam routes and the third inside receiver running some kind of option route over the middle based on how he was defended. Because of the combination of hitches (H) on the outside (O) and seams (S) from the slot receivers (S), this route combination is often referred to as HOSS. Ted Nguyen of The Athletic first drew attention to this and it is certainly something to watch for this week. It was particularly effective against rookie Adoree Jackson, who repeatedly gave whoever was lined up over him a considerable cushion, whether it was the electric Marquise Goodwin or even fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
However, the 49ers will likely have to dress it up a little more this week as well as introducing some wrinkles. The Jaguars have the best outside cornerback duo in the league in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey and neither corner has much to be afraid of from the 49ers’ receivers, though Goodwin will undoubtedly be the 49ers’ biggest threat thanks to his speed and route running ability. Unlike the Titans’ corners, the Jaguars corners will be able to defend the 49ers’ receivers much more tightly and will likely press them a lot of the line. The 49ers could call for their receivers to make a double move on the outside, but equally could see how the Jaguars defend the play early in the game and introduce a wrinkle later on. Most specifically, they could target the weakest links on the Jaguars’ defense - strong safety Barry Church and nickel corner Aaron Colvin (though neither player is in any way weak in the grand scheme of things).
If the Jaguars’ outside corners stick with the receivers on a hitch, that leaves Church and Colvin isolated against their men, who would both have a two-way go. Goodwin could be incredibly dangerous lined up inside running a deep corner route, with the 49ers running a sort of smash concept to use the coverage abilities of the Jaguars’ outside corners against them. The likes of Trent Taylor could also run an option route against Colvin to attack him and either George Kittle or Garrett Celek could be options to battle Church physically. The Jaguars certainly won't be invincible and the 49ers can simply build these concepts on top of what they showed on film last week.
Kendrick Bourne has his first big game
Bourne’s first big game couldn't have come at a better time, both in the context of last week’s game and looking forward to this week. With Aldrick Robinson getting hurt and Louis Murphy appearing incapable of getting open, Bourne’s performance helped to carry the 49ers to a win over the Titans. It’s also clear that Garoppolo trusts Bourne to make plays; the rookie has flashed solid hands and effective route running all season and there was a nice moment on one of the post-game clips between Garoppolo and Bourne where the quarterback was seen praising his receiver.
If Bourne can develop into an effective possession receiver in the long term that will be huge for the 49ers, but this week Bourne will face one of the toughest challenges he’s likely to face in his entire career, going up against Bouye and Ramsey. The matchup with Ramsey looks particularly onerous for the young receiver given Ramsey’s pure physical attributes and athleticism, but he does have the edge in size with Bouye. Hopefully we get to see how much Bourne is willing to mix it up physically this week to get open - a crucial part of his long term development - as well as get to see more of his ability to reel in balls away from his body even if he struggles to separate. If Garoppolo throws him the ball in such situations and Bourne can make some plays, that will bode incredibly well looking forwards for this team.
Reuben Foster is a top 5 NFL inside linebacker, at worst
Reuben Foster was once again absolutely sensational. His best plays came in the run game, where he made several key stops for the 49ers’ defense, but he also showed up as a pass defender. Foster has demonstrated that he can operate effectively as zone defender in the short to intermediate areas, where he has the movement skills to drop deep enough to cover receivers running routes behind him (also flashing rare awareness of what’s going on behind him), the explosiveness to drive on anything thrown in front of him and the understanding of angles and tackling to ensure that he finishes the play. He has also flashed some man coverage ability, primarily against running backs releasing to the flats where he has shown legitimate closing speed, but when against tight ends, he’s shown great physicality in space as they run their routes.
Foster will once again need to excel at the heart of the 49ers’ defense on Sunday, both to help stop one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL as well as slowing a passing offense that is without its two best receivers in Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, and could be without it’s third best receiver Allen Hurns. His personal battle with Leonard Fournette will be an excellent watch as well.
The 49ers’ offensive line is a shambles
Since Trent Brown went down, the 49ers’ offensive line has been the worst unit on the team. Something like that was bound to happen once Zane Beadles saw the field, especially out of position at right tackle. But it’s not all on Beadles. Daniel Kilgore has further regressed this season whilst Laken Tomlinson has struggled massively in both the running and passing games. Even Brandon Fusco, who has played at an acceptable level this season, struggled last weak against an excellent Titans front 7 that was blitzing heavily.
The 49ers’ offensive line likely won’t take much solace from the fact that their opposition this week blitz the least in the NFL, given they pressure quarterbacks the second most in the NFL anyway. This is a truly horrible matchup up front for the 49ers, where the Jaguars’ best edge rusher, Yannick Ngakoue will spend the game opposite Beadles and Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson will feast on the 49ers’ interior offensive line. The Jaguars’ ability to rush four (or dare I say three) men and still get pressure on Garoppolo is the 49ers’ worst nightmare. Garoppolo won’t be able to pick apart the Jaguars’ defense in the face of pressure with anywhere near the consummate ease that he managed against the Titans, where he simply attacked the area vacated by the blitzer. The Jaguars will have seven or even eight players in coverage and Garoppolo will have a challenge on his hands to find any open receivers. Given the quality of the Jaguars’ players, there are likely to be few of those and the 49ers will need to rely on their defense to keep them in the game. I don’t even have high hopes for their rushing offense , even if the Jaguars are only ranked 27th against the run this season. The 49ers’ offensive line is simply playing too poorly.
The 49ers’ DBs struggle against the Titans, but have a chance to make amends
Dontae Johnson continued to struggle against Tennessee (punctuated by a stupid hands to the face penalty that nullified a drive ending sack by DeForest Buckner), whilst Eric Reid lost his matchup with Delanie Walker handsomely. Even Adrian Colbert had a couple of plays where he finally showed he was a rookie, showing a bit of a lack of awareness in coverage at the back end.
But they have an opportunity this week to make amends and help shut down a Jaguars’ offense missing it’s two best receivers and potentially missing a third. Marcedes Lewis is nowhere near Delanie Walker’s level and is a better matchup for Reid as a result, whilst Ahkello Witherspoon and Johnson will need to keep a watchful eye on Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook in the event Hurns is also out injured. Both, especially Cole have been effective receiving options but the 49ers will expect their corners to be able to keep the duo in check.
If the 49ers can make shut down the Jaguars offense, we could see more errant throws from Blake Bortles if he tries to force the issue as well as keeping the game closer, at which point anything can happen. Cole will be one to watch however, especially if matched up with Johnson whilst a healthy Hurns would likely mean the 49ers’ corners have too much to deal with, which in itself is indicative of issues at the position moving forwards.