With their Week 11 bye in the rear-view mirror, the San Francisco 49ers head East in Week 12 to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s the team’s first road trip since their disappointing Week 8 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Kyle Shanahan’s squad is presented with yet another winnable matchup, their fourth in four weeks, against a Buccaneers team starting Jameis Winston after their third quarterback switch of the season.
Here are five players to watch when the 49ers battle the Bucs on Sunday:
LB Reuben Foster
The 49ers’ leading linebacker has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury that first manifested itself this season in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Foster was essentially playing without the use of his right arm. Despite attempts to battle through the injury, Foster was eventually sidelined against the New York Giants in Week 10. He returned to practice this week in limited fashion after what amounted to nearly two weeks of rest. Foster seems likely to play Sunday, making his performance and health a must-watch.
WR Dante Pettis
Veteran receiver Pierre Garçon hasn’t practiced this week, despite expectations that he’d return from his knee injury after the bye. Garçon’s absence should pave the way for an increased role for Pettis, the 49ers’ rookie second-round receiver. Outside of two impressive catches in Weeks 1 and 2, Pettis has failed to make an impact this season. He was sidelined with a knee injury for four weeks before making his return against Cardinals in Week 8. Since then, he’s caught just four passes for 12 yards, all against the Giants. The 49ers would undoubtedly love to see more from Pettis against a lackluster Buccaneers secondary.
CB Richard Sherman
The Buccaneers own an impressive stable of receivers led by Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. Sherman will have his hands full no matter who lines up in front of him. The 49ers’ veteran cornerback will be the leading effort in minimizing the Bucs’ passing attack led by Winston. Tampa Bay’s quarterback carousel has produced a wealth of turnovers for opposing defenses. Perhaps Sherman, who’s never gone a year without an interception, finds his first pick of the season on Sunday.
QB Nick Mullens
Mullens will stay on the watch list as long as he’s a week-to-week starter, despite Shanahan’s expectations the he’ll remain the 49ers’ quarterback. The “Magic” took a bit of a hit in Week 10 against the Giants, throwing for one touchdown, two interceptions and a 73.7 quarterback rating. For the third week in a row, he’ll face a vulnerable defense, but this time in Tampa Bay, marking his first road start.
S Jimmie Ward
Ward is on the back end of what’s slated to be his final season with the 49ers. The first-round pick in 2014, after playing three positions in four years, is back at free safety for the defense in replacement of the injured Adrian Colbert. Ward is currently playing under the fifth-year option and is among the 49ers’ highest paid defenders. He’ll be relied upon Sunday to minimize the big plays from a Buccaneers offense that, although inconsistent, is more than capable of making a splash. The last six games are an important audition for Ward, whether for the 49ers or the rest of the league.