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49ers vs Bengals: 6 key Questions heading into Week 8

San Francisco desperately needs to find answers this Sunday

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of a two-game losing streak, the 49ers face a multitude of questions as they take on the Bengals this week. They dodged their most pivotal one Saturday, as it was announced that Brock Purdy cleared the concussion protocol and will start the game.

Maintaining Purdy under center means the Niners don’t have to alter their game plan to accommodate Sam Darnold’s skill set and lack of reps/chemistry with the starting unit, which is a huge plus. Nevertheless, there are a numerous other areas that San Francisco has to address in Week 8 and moving forward.

Is the 49ers defense actually good?

Let’s go down the list:

  • A gross inability to get off the field on 3rd down
  • Poor play-calling, scheming, and situational awareness from defensive coordinator Steve Wilks
  • An inexcusably anemic pass rush
  • Excessive, costly penalties
  • A lackluster Nick Bosa
  • A soft, spacious secondary
  • A leaky run defense

The 49ers defense has issues in nearly every single facet. These issues aren’t new either, they all just coalesced to be their most critical and consequential against Minnesota

  • Week 1: Let Pittsburgh march 95 yards in 1:25 for a TD before halftime, effectively cutting the lead to ten points and allowing for a shift in momentum entering the second half
  • Week 2: Give up 386 total yards to Matthew Stafford and the Rams (21 yards more than San Francisco’s total in that game), including another long 88-yard touchdown drive. One sack by the defense
  • Week 4: Allow Josh Dobbs and the Arizona Cardinal offense to win time of possession, rack up 362 total yards—including touchdown drives of 88 and 99 yards—and cut the lead to five points entering the 4th a game that should have been over in the 2nd quarter.

If not for the 49ers massive offensive output and nine Cardinal penalties, this game would have been far closer and potentially a loss

  • Week 6: Surrender 334 yards to a backup quarterback in PJ Walker and the Cleveland Brown offense, including a season-high 160 on the ground—the most since Week 6 of 2022.
  • Week 7: Abject disaster in every way. Zero sacks. 452 total yards. 8/13 in 3rd down conversions

Despite having problems across the board, these are solvable. The 49ers have an immense amount of talent on this side of the football. Upping the pass rush, avoiding ill-timed penalties, and tweaking scheme situationally can reap quick, tremendous dividends and aid the secondary.

Can the run game rebound? Why does Shanahan refuse Jordan Mason?

After a torrid start, Christian McCaffrey and the Niners run game has cooled off the past two games. To be fair, McCaffrey still scored two touchdowns while muscling through an oblique injury last week.

However, he had a devastating fumble that cost San Francisco a likely touchdown (field goal, at minimum) and mustered a paltry 45 yards and a three yards-per-carry average. He didn’t fare much better in Cleveland the week prior, averaging 3.9 yards per carry en route to a 43-yard outing.

Kyle Shanahan’s obstinate reluctance to not only spell McCaffrey, but to leverage the capable skill set of Jordan Mason continues to be absolutely mystifying—even more so when McCaffrey has been banged up, overused, and not finding ground.

Rushing is the cornerstone strength of the 49ers offensive identity, so it’s no surprise that the 49ers entire offense has come crashing back to Earth. Fortunately, the 49ers have a great opportunity to right the ship this week. The Bengals have the fourth-worst rush defense in the NFL, giving up nearly 150 yards a game on the ground.

Will Mason get a chance this week? Not likely.

Can the 49ers stem the turnover tide?

Every coach preaches it. Kyle Shanahan, in particular, stresses the importance of ball security above all else.

After turning the football over just twice through the first five games, the 49ers have now done so four times in the past two games—including three in their losing effort against the Vikings.

Turnovers are the most foundational correlate to winning NFL games. You can’t win the game if you are giving the other team the football. San Francisco’s turnover ratio becomes even more paramount when facing a talented team like the Cincinnati Bengals.

Holding on to the football was likely a key talking point and focus in practice this week. It will be interesting to see if the recent rash of turnovers influences Shanahan to call a more conservative game to help mitigate it.

Will Jake Moody lose his job?

Hot seat” would be an understatement. After botching two kicks that ultimately lost the game in Cleveland, Moody missed a 40-yard chip shot in a dome Monday night in Minnesota. Yes, he nailed a 55-yarder later in the game to get him off the schneid, but that hardly qualifies as redemption.

There are going to be times the 49ers need Moody to win the game. The one time they did this season, he blew it. Will those ghosts haunt him the next time he lines up for a game clincher?

And while the clamor about his field goal whiffs has been deafening, know what isn’t being talked about? The fact that Moody has launched MULTIPLE KICKOFFS OUT OF BOUNDS—needlessly surrendering 40 yards of valuable field position to the opposition. This, too, is a considerable problem.

Moody needs to transform liability into reliability this Sunday. That’s how dire this situation is and how tenuous a kicker’s job security is in the NFL. If he struggles against Cincinnati, Robbie Gould’s phone will be ringing.

Where is the energy?

The 49ers often looked out of sync and lethargic against the Browns and the Vikings. Maybe they started to buy into their own hype a little too much after that drubbing against Dallas. Whatever the case may be, the Niners need to regain the intensity and laser focus they played with through the first five games.

Can the 49ers prove themselves as a contender, against a contender?

Outside of Dallas, the 49ers haven’t played a top competitor yet. Dallas may not even be a one—San Francisco is the only winning team they’ve faced this season. Pittsburgh is coming around, but no one is mentioning them with the likes of Philadelphia, Kansas City, Miami, Baltimore, and Detroit.

Yes, the Bengals are 3-3, but their early season adversity can be attributed to a one-legged Joe Burrow. Now, he’s off the injury list, and it’s been reported that he’s as close to 100% as he’s ever been.

Cincinnati enters this game well-rested after a bye week and practically completely healthy. They’ve won three of their last four, including an impressive Week 6 victory against the Seahawks. They are a team that is finding its stride.

Conversely, the 49ers limp into this affair with their signature, annual injury woes, on six days rest, with significant issues on defense, and a defensive coordinator that has come under fire. They are a team that needs to regain its stride.

As quickly as everyone was ready to claim San Francisco the juggernaut of the NFL after just five games, is as quickly as everyone will question if they’re even going to make the playoffs if the 49ers go into the bye week on a three-game losing streak.

Will the Niners get back on track or skid further off the rails?

If the 49ers can’t come away with the victory this Sunday, is it time to panic?