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Week 15 Bengals at 49ers: 5 key 49ers players to watch for on Sunday

AJ McCarron starts for the first time and he gets the chance to face a team that was just beaten up badly by the bad Browns' offense.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I'm an optimist and I believe the Bengals will go 3-0 the rest of the way and will claim one of the two playoff byes in the AFC, giving injured starting quarterback Andy Dalton another week of rest to get ready to take this team to the big stage. I also believe this is Cincinnati's first of two trips to San Francisco this season. All hail McCarron!

This week, the 10-3 Bengals pay a visit to the 4-9 49ers who are fresh off a loss in Cleveland to Johnny Manziel and friends. I won't say this should be an easy game for them, because anyone can beat anyone in the NFL in just one game, but this is a game Cincy needs to win. There's no sugar-coating here. If they can't beat one of the worst teams in football they are not going to beat Denver the following week, which is the key moment of this three-game run to finish the season in the best spot possible come playoff time.

And yet, as I already said, there are no easy games in the NFL. The 49ers are 2-3 with Blaine Gabbert under center, and they almost pulled a huge upset in their game against the Cardinals in Week 12. They've lost a handful of players to retirement early in the offseason and to injuries during the season. They've also switched quarterbacks just more than a year after signing Colin Kaepernick to a huge extension - with many outs for the franchise, truth be told. Their offense has been held to under three yards per play TWICE this year, most recently against the dreadful Browns defense last Sunday.

And they've been finding contributors everywhere to compete since benching Kap, which says a lot about their resilience. Let's go find out then who you should watch out for this week (you're all familiar with NaVorro Bowman already so he is not included).

1) Erik Pears

Blaine Gabbert was sacked nine times in Cleveland. Go figure. He was hit all day long and while not every sack is the offensive line's fault, right tackle Erik Pears did give up three of them, and he is not going to face Paul Kruger on Sunday but Carlos Dunlap, a far better pass rusher and player.

San Francisco struggled against the Browns' stunts and we know the Bengals don't blitz often, focusing on playing zone defense and expecting their front four to get home on their own. If they don't want surprises they need to put pressure on Gabbert, not allowing him to gain confidence and overachieve. If they can keep the 49ers on 3rd & long plenty of times they will be in really good shape.

Pears could not do anything against the speed of Kruger, other than hold him blatantly. And you know who is very good at turning the corner against an offensive tackle? Dunlap.

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Or just letting him get to the quarterback.

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2) Ian Williams

Probably the best of the two nose tackles that play for the 49ers, he was the only bright spot for a front seven that allowed one of the worst rushing attacks in football, the Browns, to gash them for 230 yards on the ground.

He had a difficult matchup against Cleveland center Alex Mack, but he actually played well, notching four tackles and forcing a fumble. He ranks second among the 49ers in stops with 30, according to Niners Nation; he trails only Bowman.

As the Bengals get ready to unleash Jeremy Hill and boast a more power running game on offense to make things easier for McCarron, Williams is going to be key for San Francisco to stop the Bengals ground attack.

He never gives up, and Bengals center Russell Bodine will have to step up to open lanes up the middle for Hill against Williams.

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He has quick feet and very good reaction, and his speed makes it hard to block him.

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3) Quinton Dial

Another defensive lineman and McCarron's teammate in Alabama is quietly having a nice season with the 49ers in his third year as a pro. A former fifth-round pick, Dial is doing a little bit of everything as he has 2.5 sacks and two blocked field goals this season.

He is the one who can give the Bengals' offensive line some trouble when they help Bodine with one of the guards. If Arik Armstead develops into a solid rotation player, San Francisco is going to have a nice defensive line pretty soon.

At 6'5" and 318 pounds he has all the tools: size, speed, resilience.

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He never loses focus and is constantly trying to make a play on the football.

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4) Torrey Smith

Most Bengals fans are familiar with the former Ravens' wide receiver. With a 5-year $40 million contract, he was supposed to bring big play capability to the 49ers' offense. But, with the horrible quarterback situation, it is safe to say it is not entirely his fault that he's recorded only 24 catches for 546 yards so far.

Indeed, he's still the same deep threat he was in Baltimore, averaging 22.8 yards per reception. His three touchdowns have come in passes of 75, 76 and 71 yards, but only in two games has he recorded more than two catches - six against the Steelers in Week 2 and three against the Ravens in Week 6. I bet he misses Joe Flacco, at least a little bit.

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You have to account for the depleted Bengals' secondary and Dre Kirkpatrick not being the greatest cornerback at all times. If the front four does not get pressure and the 49ers take a shot, Smith can give them a touchdown very simply. Smith is questionable on the 49ers' injury report.

5) Aaron Lynch

Another young and solid defensive player for the 49ers, Lynch is becoming a two-way player after being used much more as a designated pass rusher last season. The second-year veteran from Cleveland and out of South Florida has 12.5 sacks thus far in his career, and if he is cleared from his concussion and ready to play against the Bengals he is a player to be wary of.

Without standout inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, he will carry even more weight on his shoulders against the Bengals' running game. At 6'5" and 270 pounds, Cincy will hope tight end Tyler Kroft or h-back Ryan Hewitt are able to block him one-on-one while filling in for Tyler Eifert, who was declared out for Sunday.

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As our own Mike Townsend said, "remain calm & McCarry-on", folks.