Blaine Gabbert vs AJ McCarron is not quite Joe Montana vs Ken Anderson or Boomer Esiason. While this game may not have the same implications as the Bengals vs 49ers matchups of 1981 or 1988, this is a vitally important game for the 2015 Bengals. A win on Sunday further helps make a fifth playoff appearance over the last five years possible and could close the door on the division (depending on what happens in Pittsburgh). David Fucillo of Niners Nation sat down with us to give us an idea of what McCarron and the Bengals are facing this weekend in the bay.
1. Not even two years ago, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers were finishing up their third straight NFC Conference Championship appearance and were one year removed from a narrow Super Bowl loss. 24 games later, Kaepernick is on the bench (now IR) and likely on his way out of San Francisco. What happened? And what are the chances Kaepernick is on the 49ers roster in 2016?
Answer: It's hard to say with certainty what happened exactly. The offensive line has been a train wreck, the turnover on the roster and coaching staff have been pretty crazy. Kaepernick has never seemingly taken that big step forward a lot of people were hoping for, and his struggles were real. Some blame it on trying to turn him into more of a pocket passer, others suggest he had a natural ceiling because of his limitations as a pocket passer. I've started to give up trying to figure out why.
One thing I do know is he needs to get out of this toxic environment. After Harbaugh left, Kap was next in line to take the blame, and the leaking was pretty quick once the team started struggling. I have little doubt he is either released or traded this offseason, likely before his 2016 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. I do think Kap needs a strong offensive line and defense around him, but there is solid potential still there for somebody.
2. I will admit, I thought Blaine Gabbert's career was done (at least in terms of a starter) when he left Jacksonville, however, since taking over mid-season, he has played pretty well and the team seems to have responded. How does the offense differ with Gabbert at the helm? And do you feel he can/will be the 49ers long term quarterback going forward?
Answer: The offense doesn't differ all that much, it's just that Gabbert has done a better job executing in certain respects. However, after a strong first three games, the last two games have been a bit of a step back. The 49ers got the win on a couple big plays from Gabbert, but the offense was pretty bad before that. Gabbert is better than what he did in Jacksonville, but he still has a limited ceiling. His accuracy still requires some work, but he has improved in dealing with pressure in the pocket.
I don't think he is a long term answer at quarterback, but he is a capable transition quarterback. I would expect the 49ers to draft a QB (round TBD), and then have him learn behind Gabbert. My guess is Gabbert is the Week 1 2016 starter, and potentially the starter the entire 2016 season, but they work to transition to a QB with a higher ceiling.
3. Garrett Celek is from Cincinnati and actually went to my high school (Cincinnati LaSalle). Prior to being placed on IR, Celek was having his best season as a pro. With the trade of Vernon Davis, what does Celek's future look like in San Francisco?
Answer: He has done some good work when he's been healthy, but injuries have been a problem. A back issue cost him most of the 2014 season, and a high ankle sprain has him back on injured reserve this year. He will be a restricted free agent, so the odds are pretty good the 49ers sign him to a tender. The 49ers drafted two tight ends this past year, and Vance McDonald will get chances as the No. 1 tight end. Celek is a capable back but seems to have a fairly definitive ceiling. He could emerge as the No. 2 tight end for at least one more year.
4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this 49ers team? And, if you were the Bengals, how would you attack the 49ers on offense and on defense?
Answer: Offense: Strengths would be Shaun Draughn catching passes out of the backfield, and Blaine Gabbert scrambling around. Gabbert is solid on shorter passes, but has shown an ability to hit on long passes. He can do a little bit of everything, but without a lot of consistency. In terms of weaknesses, the passing game struggles against most pass rushes. Blaine Gabbert was sacked nine times last week due to a variety of issues, with blame eligible for tight ends, fullbacks, the line, Gabbert and the play-calling. One thing the Bengals would be wise to do is use stunts against the 49ers offensive line. Right tackle Erik Pears, and likely left guard Marcus Martin (Alex Boone is out for the game) are the weakest parts of the line, and I expect to see the Bengals attack that group, particularly with stunts.
Defense: Strengths would be OLB Aaron Lynch in the pass rush and NT Ian Williams against the run. The problem for the 49ers is that while specific players do things well, as a whole, the unit struggles with consistency in most phases. The team has been particularly bad against the run, giving up a huge game last week to Isaiah Crowell. I expect the Bengals to attack this run defense like crazy, particularly with A.J. McCarron in at quarterback.
I'd actually say the defense's biggest strength is playing at home. The defense has been much better at home than on the road. Whether that's because of playing up for the home crowd or what exactly remains to be seen, but the defense is better at home. They were run over by an awful Cleveland Browns team, but I would not be surprised to see them show up well against the Bengals.
5. How do you see this game unfolding on Sunday, and what is your prediction?
Answer: I actually think this is a close, relatively low-scoring game. I think an upset is very possible simply because the 49ers are a decent home team. They are a 4.5-point underdog, and I don't think a cover is that crazy. I could see this ending up in similar fashion to the 49ers 19-13 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals a few weeks back. The game was tied heading into the fourth quarter, and a Carson Palmer TD at the 2:28 mark was the difference. I think a final score of 17-13 in either direction is the likely outcome.
Bonus: I read this week that the 49ers will be honoring their Super Bowl teams of 1981 and 1988 prior to this week's game. It seems a bit odd to honor teams on the 34th and 27th anniversary, but, those two teams just happened to beat the Bengals in both Super Bowls...oh, and steal years of joy from my childhood! Do you believe this is just the 49ers management wanting to rub those rings in the face of Bengals management? Some good old front office gamesmanship?
Answer: I have to think the 49ers are looking for an opportunity to troll the Bengals. They played at Cincinnati in 2011, and I imagine would play in Cincinnati in 2019, so why not take advantage of this opportunity? And given how bad things are going otherwise, a chance to relive some great moments in franchise history is worth something. But trolling Bengals fans remains a favorite past time of mine, so I'll take it!