COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers come into Week 12 in a must-win situation. At 6-4 and currently holding the final playoff spot in the NFC, there is a sense of urgency for a team that came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations. Luckily for San Francisco, it will be taking on a Washington Redskins team that has struggled through a 3-7 start to the season on Monday Night Football. Here are five keys to victory for the road tripping 49ers.
Unlike their last two games, the 49ers will be taking on what has to be considered one of the worst defenses in the entire National Football League. Washington is yielding an average of 31.1 points per game. Opposing offenses are also averaging 390 yards per game against this unit. There is absolutely no reason why Colin Kaepernick and Co. cannot get back on track here.
If they are to, it's going to be all about taking advantage of perceived mismatches, the biggest of which comes in the form of Vernon Davis going up against a safety group that has been among the worst in the entire league. According to Pro Football Focus, Brandon Meriweather ranks 81st out of a possible 85 safeties in coverage this season. The likes of Bacarri Rambo and Reed Doughty also rank in the bottom 16 of the NFL in that category. In order for Kaepernick to have success through the air, he's going to have to take advantage of this mismatch.Build a Strong Foundation with the Running Game
Even if San Francisco doesn't start strong on the ground, it needs to remain committed to the run game against Washington. It's averaging just 23 rush attempts during this two-game losing streak. In comparison, the 49ers averaged a whopping 38.6 rush attempts during their five-game winning streak earlier in the season.
Breaking it down a bit further. Frank Gore is averaging just 14.5 rush attempts in the 49ers last two games, compared to 21 during the aforementioned winning streak. In fact, Gore has attempted just five rushes in the fourth quarter over the last two games. That's just not going to get it done.
Washington's defense ranks in the bottom half of the NFL against the run and is yielding an average of 115 yards per game. It has also given up a league-high 15 rushing touchdowns through 10 games. It must, however, be noted that those numbers are a tad skewed by the 263 rushing yards Washington gave up against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. With that being said, the 49ers should be able to take advantage of this perceived mismatch. It's now all about Greg Roman and Co. sticking to the running game, even if it struggles out of the gate.Pressure Robert Griffin III
According to Pro Football Focus, San Francisco boasts four of the top 20 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL this season. The emergence of both Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier has really helped Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith create one of the best units in the entire league. With that said, San Francisco's talent at this position hasn't necessarily equated to a ton of sacks. San Francisco's defense ranks 27th in the NFL with just 21 sacks through 10 games. It however, does grade out as the seventh-best pass-rushing unit in the league according to Pro Football Focus. What's the disconnect there? San Francisco is putting pressure on the quarterback, but isn't getting the sack numbers to show for it.
This pressure needs to continue against Washington on Monday with the 49ers acquiring a couple more sacks than their season average. RGIII has been sacked an average of about two times per game thus far this season. Interestingly enough, the young quarterback tends to struggle in the pocket when faced with pressure from the edge. This is where the 49ers fearsome foursome at outside linebacker come into play. They need to create an offensive backfield that is going to be constantly in flux come Monday night. This will throw off the timing patterns that Kyle Shanahan's offense relies on and may force RGIII into some mistakes. More importantly, that outside pass rush will disable RGIII's ability to pull the ball down and run with it outside the hashes. After all, we all know that NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis aren't going to allow him to do much in the run game between the hashes.Account for Pierre Garcon
Outside of Garcon, the Redskins don't have a single receiver that has caught more than 30 passes this season. Leonard Hankerson is second among wide receivers at 30 catches, but he's averaging less than five targets per game. This means that San Francisco can shade coverage to Garcon's side with Eric Reid over the top.
The interesting dynamic here is that RGIII has thrown three touchdowns compared to five interceptions when targeting Garcon. Look for the 49ers to take advantage of that with Reid, who has instantly become a ballhawk in the back end of the defense. Normally Tarell Brown would line up against Garcon a vast majority of the time with Carlos Rogers moving into the slot, but that might change with Brown likely out of the game with cracked ribs. Either way, the 49ers should be okay with a combination of Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright going up against the rest of Washington's receivers.Offensive Scheme
Outside of focusing on the run game, Greg Roman's offensive scheme needs to be on spot come Monday. One of the primary reasons for San Francisco's struggles on that side of the ball over the past two weeks is that Roman has continually struggled calling the right play at the right time. Considering that Washington's safety play has been absolutely atrocious, I would like to see Roman call some shots over the top to Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and even Jon Baldwin. Kaepernick nearly hit on a few of these against the New Orleans Saints and they are going to be there with Washington destined to stack the box against the run.
In reality, it's all about going away from the conservative game plan and taking more shots in specific situations. One of the major factors in opening up the offense will be the 49ers ability to gain positive yardage on first down. Defenses will sell out against the run on second and short, which should give Kaepernick single coverage down the field. This is where Davis and McDonald come into play between the hashes.Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
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