Going into the season, I don’t think anyone imagined that the 49ers-Raiders’ Thursday Night Football matchup would feature two one-win teams. Yet, both teams are on a downward spiral in 2018 and heading for the top of the NFL Draft.
To add another layer of complexity to this game — as if a shortened week isn’t difficult enough — the 49ers may be without quarterback C.J. Beathard due a to wrist injury. That implies that backup Nick Mullens may be making his first career start in the regular season.
Aside from that, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Jaquiski Tartt are out for Thursday’s matchup with various injuries, while running backs Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, wideout Pierre Garcon, corner Richard Sherman and center Weston Richburg are listed as questionable.
Yikes. That’s a lot of important names that could be watching from the sideline against the Oakland Raiders on Thursday. Despite these injuries, here’s what the 49ers will have to do in order to find some success in the Battle of the Bay.
1. Take the ball out of the 49ers’ quarterbacks hands and lean heavily on the running game.
Mullens could make his first career start under the lights against a Bay Area rival on primetime with a short week of preparation. That is not ideal. It is a lot to ask for anyone, especially an undrafted free agent.
Or, if Beathard is able to suit up, that means his wrist probably isn’t going to be 100 percent, limiting his throwing ability on the field.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan should try to limit the number of passing attempts that his quarterbacks have and force feed the 49ers’ running backs. There needs to be a clear disparity in the offensive balance, favoring the run over the pass.
San Francisco currently employs the sixth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, while Oakland has the 28th-ranked rushing defense. If Breida and Mostert are able to suit up, — which I expect them to — then Shanahan should take full advantage and feast on a young Raiders’ defense.
2. Limit the Raiders’ most productive pass-catchers, TE Jared Cook and RB Jalen Richard
When the Raiders came into training camp with wideouts Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, I would have imagined the three being one of the more dynamic receiving corps in the NFL.
Eight weeks into the season, Nelson seems to be a shell of himself, Cooper is a Cowboy and Bryant continues to be teetering on a potential suspension. So who are the quarterback Derek Carr’s favorite targets: tight end Jared Cook and running back Jalen Richard.
Cook comes into Thursday with 36 catches and 474 yards, while Richard has 26 more catches than rushing attempts.
The 49ers will be without Foster, which adds an extra layer of difficulty on Thursday. The major areas of weakness on the 49ers’ defense are the pass rush, covering running backs out of the backfield and limiting tight ends down the field. It’s going to be a challenge for linebackers Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith, who struggle in coverage of smaller, shiftier players.
3. Don’t give Derek Carr extra chances against the 49ers’ defense.
After turning the ball over 18 times in the first seven weeks of the season, the 49ers did a solid job of protecting the rock against the Cardinals last week, not having any giveaways.
That theme will need to continue on Thursday night against the Raiders, especially with the potential injury-related absences on defense. Carr and co. have enough talent on offense to torch the 49ers’ defense, if Robert Saleh’s group is put on the field in bad situations.
I fully expect a low-scoring, ugly, grind-it-out type of game on Thursday, but a few turnovers and short fields could change that. It’ll be pivotal for the offensive playmakers to not fumble the ball and the 49ers’ quarterbacks to make high-percentage throws.