Five 49ers to watch in full-circle Week 11 clash vs. Buccaneers originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
Their top two quarterbacks to open the season, Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, were out with season-ending injuries, and largely unknown Brock Purdy stepped in with Tom Brady starting on the other side.
That was in Week 14. Purdy outperformed Brady, and there was never again any debate as to the identity of the 49ers’ long-term quarterback.
“It was huge,” said Purdy, whose 109.9 passer rating currently leads the NFL. “Just like the confidence that came from knowing that, all right, you know, I can play in this league.
“We were on a roll, too. We had our sights set on finishing out the season strong.”
And, again, that’s where the 49ers are today.
The 49ers (6-3) are in the hunt for the NFC West and, perhaps, even the top seed in the NFC.
After this game, the 49ers’ postseason position could come into focus with successive games at Seattle, at Philadelphia and, again, against Seattle at Levi’s Stadium.
But, first, they can ill-afford another slip-up as a decisive favorite.
Here are five 49ers to watch in their game Sunday against the Brady-less Buccaneers:
5, LB Dre Greenlaw
The 49ers have a completely different aura on defense when linebacker Dre Greenlaw is healthy, playing fast and being ultra-aggressive.
Greenlaw has been slowed this season due to ankle, hamstring and shoulder injuries. The bye week was just what the doctor ordered, as Greenlaw came back last week and looked like his usual self against the Jaguars.
He is no longer listed on the injury report, and he is practicing and playing without any restrictions.
A year ago, Greenlaw collected an interception against Brady. Afterward, he asked Brady to autograph the football. Graciously, he did.
Regardless, there will be no postgame autograph on Sunday from first-year Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield. But Greenlaw will have ample opportunities to put his own signature on this game.
4, TE George Kittle
In the 49ers’ first six games of the season, Kittle had just two games in which he had more than 30 yards receiving.
Over the past three games, he has taken off.
The 49ers’ offense is designed to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the offense. Purdy’s reads are mostly determined by the kind of coverage the opposition deploys. He and Kittle have capitalized on their opportunities.
Kittle had just three receptions last week against Jacksonville, but one of them went for a 66-yard touchdown — the longest gain from a tight end in the NFL this season.
And Purdy has proved he can find the open man.
3, CB Ambry Thomas
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said this week he believes the NFL is all about matchups. In Jacksonville, the 49ers moved cornerback Deommodore Lenoir to cover slot receiver Christian Kirk in nickel situations and brought in Ambry Thomas to fill Lenoir’s spot.
“I love his man-to-man technique,” Wilks said of Thomas. “I think he's quick in and out of his breaks and he's physical. He steps up and he tackles.”
Heck, Thomas might not even play in that role this week, as Wilks left open the possibility that Isaiah Oliver will line up at nickel back with Lenoir remaining on the outside for the entire game.
Based on the successes the 49ers had against the Jaguars, we find that difficult to believe.
The Bucs use veteran Chris Godwin and rookie Trey Palmer nearly equally in the slot. Lenoir would appear to be the better matchup against both of those players, which means Thomas should get a lot of playing time.
And you can fully expect Mayfield will test him early and often.
2, RG Spencer Burford
Although the 49ers do not base any decisions on the PFF grades of players, we feel obligated to note right guard Spencer Burford ranks far down the list of NFL offensive guards.
In his first eight games, he gave up a team-high 20 quarterback pressures. At that point, the 49ers decided to begin sprinkling veteran offensive lineman Jon Feliciano into the mix to share time with Burford.
But when left guard Aaron Banks sustained a “turf toe” injury and would miss several games, Feliciano moved into that spot and Burford remained as the every-down right guard.
Burford responded last week against Jacksonville with a clean sheet in pass protection. He gave up no sacks, no pressures, no QB hits and no pressures in the 34-3 victory.
Has Burford turned the corner?
We will find out on Sunday, as he figures to see Buccaneers defensive tackle Vita Vea (listed at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds) line up across from him regularly. If Burford can hold his own in the run game and in pass protection against Vea, the 49ers’ offense should thrive.
1, DE Chase Young
In the lead-up to his debut with the 49ers, defensive end Chase Young was the No. 1 player on our list of 49ers to watch against Jacksonville.
We’re going right back to Young in his second game, too, just to confirm what we thought we saw a week ago.
At times, the 49ers played a five-man line, and the 49ers' defensive line had a big day. This is how they divided the snaps along the defensive line: Javon Hargrave 37, Nick Bosa 37, Young 35, Arik Armstead 34, Javon Kinlaw 24, Kevin Givens 22, Clelin Ferrell 22 and Randy Gregory 21.
That’s some incredible balance. And when Young is out there, he drew some attention away from Bosa. That's a luxury Bosa has rarely experienced.
And Bosa took advantage of it, too. He won NFC Defensive Player of the Week for a performance that consisted of 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, fumble recovery and one pass defensed.
Meanwhile, Young shared a sack with Bosa and had two quarterback hits.
It’s our hypothesis that Young’s presence had (and will continue to have) a major impact on everybody around him.