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5 Burning Questions For Week 3

The 49ers travel back to MetLife Stadium, the location for one of the costliest victories in recent memory, to take on the New York Giants this Sunday.

The 49ers travel back to MetLife Stadium, the location for one of the costliest victories in recent memory, to take on the New York Giants this Sunday. 

Last week the Murder at the Meadowlands resulted in the 49ers losing the services of Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Dre Greenlaw. In addition, the 49ers will be without tight end George Kittle and defensive end Dee Ford for the second consecutive week. For those keeping score, that’s nearly a third of their starting lineup.

The injury bug was not limited to only the 49ers last week. The Giants also lost two of their best offensive weapons in running back Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard. New York has lost their first two games under new head coach Joe Judge, falling to the Chicago Bears last week 17-13. After falling behind 17-0 in the first half, the Giants were able to battle back, their final drive ending with an offensive pass interference on the Bears 10-yard line.

With that as a backdrop let’s take a look at the 5 Burning Questions to which the answers will be key to the outcome on Sunday.

1. Will the 49ers let the MetLife turf get into their heads? Following the game on Sunday a number of 49ers players shared their thoughts on the MetLife turf. This discussion has gone on all week, with comments continuing from various players, head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. It is clear that they are still thinking about the field. How that will affect the 49ers level of play will be something to keep an eye on, especially early in the game.

2. Can Nick Mullens get it done on the road? After being called into duty for the second half of the 2018 season Mullens started three times on the road. The 49ers lost all three. In fact, they weren’t even competitive. The offense never scored a touchdown against Tampa Bay, they were down 27-3 early in the third quarter at Seattle and down 28-3 in the first half against the Rams until Mullens threw a touchdown to Richie James with just over two minutes left before halftime.

Mullens didn’t help much in those games. Yes, he threw six touchdown passes but also had six interceptions. Mullens posted a passer rating of 83.6 in those three road starts. That is more than 17 points lower than Jimmy Garoppolo’s road passer rating during his time in San Francisco.

There is no doubt that Mullens is a top-level NFL backup quarterback, but to that end he has some limitations to his game that Kyle Shanahan will need to work around. Of the three quarterbacks on the 49ers roster, Mullens arm strength would be the weakest. As a result, look for Shanahan to call lots of throws between the numbers.

 If Mullens is forced to throw the ball to the outside more than 10-yards downfield, they are flirting with danger. Those are difficult throws that require an above average level of arm strength to limit the defenses ability to break and make a play on the ball. For two examples of this, go back and look at the first interception that Mullens threw against the Giants back in 2018 or the incompletion that he threw last week to Trent Taylor on 3 and 4 midway through the third quarter.

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To make things even tougher for Mullens, he will be facing a Giants pass rush that ranks sixth in the NFL in sacks per passing snaps at 9.09 percent, and will be playing behind an offensive line that has so far given up the fourth-highest percentage of sacks per snap, ironically at 9.09 percent as well.

3. Can the 49ers get consistency out of their rushing attack? This may seem like an easy question to answer after the 49ers ran through the Jets for 180 yards last week. When you dig a little a little deeper, though the results look less impressive. Of those 180 yards, 135 came on two carries, the 80-yard touchdown by Raheem Mostert to open the game and the 55-yard gain by Jerick McKinnon early in the third quarter. The other 25 rush attempts by the 49ers last week netted only 45 yards, an average of 1.8 yards per attempt.

With Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both out this week, the 49ers will look to McKinnon, Jeff Wilson Jr and are likely to call JaMycal Hasty up from the practice squad after protecting him earlier in the week. McKinnon has been the 49ers second-best back through the first two games, but has carried the ball 15 times or more only twice since the start of 2017 and will be playing on that sticky MetLife turf after missing all of 2018 and 2019 with a knee injury.

4. Can the 49ers pass rush get home? Nick Bosa. Dee Ford. Deforest Buckner. The 49ers pass rush was among the best in the league last season, averaging over 3 sacks per game, and those three were a big reason why. This triumvirate accounted for 23 of the 41 sacks that came from their defensive line in 2019. Buckner was traded in the offseason, Bosa is out for the year and the 49ers will also be without Ford for the foreseeable future. This week the 49ers defensive line will take the field with a group that totaled 17.5 sacks last season, 10 of those coming from Arik Armstead.

The Giants come into this game with an offensive line that has struggled more than the 49ers in protecting the passer, allowing 3.5 sacks per game to start the season. The struggles that New York has faced with pass protection can be traced back to losing veteran left tackle Nate Solder who opted out of for the 2020 season. As a result, the Giants have been forced to go with rookie Andrew Thomas. The 2020 first round pick has struggled to get his footing in pass protection in his first two NFL starts.

5. Can the 49ers secondary hold up? The 49ers are without Richard Sherman again this week, as the veteran is on IR for the next two games. Last week, they turned to Akhello Witherspoon to take Sherman’s place as the field corner, and he played OK. That’s not saying a great deal though when you consider the opponent.

This week will provide a much better idea of where this secondary stands. Unlike last week when the Jets put out only one NFL quality wide receiver, the Giants passing game features actual NFL talent. Veteran Golden Tate has performed well in the past against San Francisco, and last week caught all five of the passes that came his way during his first action of 2020. 

The Giants also have Darius Slayton on the outside. The second year wideout is off to a fast start this year, averaging 15 yards per reception and scoring two touchdowns in the season opener against Pittsburgh. On the inside, the Giants have tight end Evan Engram. The former first round draft pick struggles with dropping the ball at times but will be a tough matchup for the 49ers linebackers this week, especially with Dre Greenlaw being out.

Prediction Time: 49ers 17 Giants 18