Disappointment surrounds both the Bengals and 49ers as they face a head-to-head clash this weekend, but for different reasons. For San Francisco, attrition of players and coaches have destroyed the mini-dynasty they built under Jim Harbaugh, and 2015 has been pretty miserable. The Bengals have had success this year, but lost their starting quarterback to a thumb injury last week for the foreseeable future.
This game might come down to Cincinnati's emotional/mental ability to rebound from last week's loss and its aftermath, rather than individual matchups. Still, both teams have talented players and also have some backups forced into starting duties. Here, we take a look at some of the most interesting in the game this weekend.
S Shawn Williams versus TE Vance McDonald:
The 49ers are decimated at the tight end position after trading Vernon Davis away to the Denver Broncos and just placing Garrett Celek on Injured Reserve. McDonald isn't a world-beater, but he's also had to deal with an incredibly fluid quarterback situation in 2015. He'll get the bulk of looks at the position with the 49ers just promoting Brian Leonhardt from the Practice Squad to back him up. Two of McDonald's best games of 2015 have come in the last three weeks, so he's gaining confidence.
He'll be going up against Williams, a backup stepping in for starter George Iloka, who is out with a groin issue. Williams isn't known as a rangy safety, but did make one of the team's plays of the year with an acrobatic interception on Ben Roethlisberger back in Week 8. If Blaine Gabbert can find a way to move San Francisco's offense in the red zone, McDonald will likely be targeted. Williams and some others will likely be tasked with covering him, with McDonald having a four-inch height advantage.
DT Geno Atkins versus LG Ian Silberman:
Starting left guard Alex Boone has been ruled out on Sunday with an injured knee, so it's likely that his backup, Silberman, gets the start. He was a sixth round pick this year out of Boston College and isn't a huge mauler in the mold of Boone. Silberman was a right tackle at BC, which shows off his versatility, but he'll be going up against Atkins, who appears to be headed to another Pro Bowl.
He hasn't been showing up much in the stat columns the past two weeks (just one tackle total), but Atkins has made his presence known. Against the Browns two weeks ago, Atkins forced Cleveland to make three switches at the left guard position, be it because of injury or ineffectiveness. His eight sacks are the second-most for him in a season and Atkins has also been swallowing up run plays. With Carlos Hyde also now on I.R., Silberman's job just got exponentially tougher.
OLBs Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks versus OTs Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth:
Normally we keep the matchups to just the one-on-ones, but every once in a while we bend the rules. Lynch has quietly become of of San Francisco's better defensive players with 6.5 sacks on the season. He just knows how to get to the quarterback and sometimes the outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes give fits to the bookend Bengals tackles. Brooks isn't the same guy he was under Harbaugh, but still has four sacks this season and had one the last time these two teams met back in 2011.
Whitworth is likely to be joining Atkins on the Pro Bowl squad, but he and the line have had some issues over the past few weeks. In three games within the past five weeks against foes like Pittsburgh, Arizona and Houston, the Bengals line surrendered 10 sacks in those three games--all losses. Smith has had his share of issues too, but with a new quarterback under center, these already-great tackles will need to up their game even more on Sunday.
TE Tyler Kroft versus FS Eric Reid:
I was tempted to say "49ers safeties" instead of just Reid because all three of their top guys at both spots back there showed up on the injury report this week. Reid is likely the most talented one of the bunch and will at least partly shadow Kroft, who is stepping in for the injured Tyler Eifert again. After benefiting from so many strong pieces on defense his first two years as a pro, he has zero interceptions in 2015.
Kroft made a couple of nice catches against the Steelers and stepped in when Eifert got a neck stinger against the Browns to get his first NFL reception. He doesn't have the same athleticism or catch radius of Eifert, but he's proving to be a somewhat reliable option in the loaded Bengals offense. Reid was a Pro Bowl safety as a rookie and will likely look to regain that form against a backup tight end.
WR Marvin Jones versus CB Kenneth Acker:
It's not good when the team's depth chart has an "or" with two players listed as a starter at the position. Such is the case at right cornerback with the 49ers, employing both Acker and Keith Reaser at the CB1 role. Acker is a second-year player who wasn't active in 2014, but surprisingly has nabbed three interceptions this year. Though the Bengals mix up looks on offense frequently, Acker will be with Jones on the afternoon.
Jones doesn't have a distinct size advantage over Acker, but he's made mincemeat of a number of corners this year. He's averaging 12.7 yards per reception and 26 of his 53 total receptions have gone for first downs. Having Jones back out there with Green presents a "pick-you-poison" scenario when defenses look to double team one of them. If Acker can stick to Jones, it's going to take some acrobatic catches by the Bengals' receiver to make some noise. We've seen him do it before, especially this year, but we've also seen him disappear for stretches, too.