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Behind Enemy Lines: Injuries on 49ers defense could help Bengals get back on track

The Bengals offense stumbled for most of last week’s game against the Chargers, but a bounce back game against a banged up defense could get them rolling again.

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals are preparing for the San Francisco 49ers in a game that is wildly important for both team’s playoff hopes. The last time these teams met it wasn’t a close one as the 49ers ran away with it. Still, these teams are drastically different than a few years ago, so we caught up with Tyler Austin from Niners Nation to get his perspective on this matchup.

Patrick Judis: The quarterback position is really interesting from the outside perspective. Can you sum up how the fan base currently feels about Jimmy Garoppolo playing ahead of Trey Lance?

Tyler Austin: Feelings about the San Francisco quarterback situation have been and will almost assuredly remain decidedly split until Garoppolo is no longer on the roster. There are certainly those who feel Jimmy’s experience and comfort within the offense give the team the best chance to win games in 2021, thus he should remain the starter. Perhaps, the most important person who feels this way is head coach Kyle Shanahan. This all seemed to make sense when the Niners ripped off their three game win streak against the Rams, Jaguars, and Vikings.

However, the chorus of defenders were quieted by the eight year vet’s performance this past Sunday in Seattle, and his detractors are now as loud as ever. Obviously, Trey Lance offers dimensions that Garoppolo could never hope to unlock. He can take designed runs, extend broken plays, and stretch the field vertically. Though, in his six quarters of NFL time, the complexities of the offense had to be significantly simplified for him, and when they weren’t, things looked… Shaky.

That’s not to say he doesn’t still represent a rocket ship of potential and giving him the opportunity to grow this season wouldn’t be positive for his future development. The downside is, in theory, he could limit the ceiling of a team that many felt were in position to win the NFC West and compete for a Super Bowl, so Jimmy it is. That’s all good and fine “in theory,” yet reality has painted a different picture.

Everyone agrees that Garoppolo isn’t in the tier of quarterbacks that can elevate an offense or take over games. He’s a game manager, and, at times, a pretty good one. But his limitations look all the worse this year, considering the team shelled out three first round picks to draft his replacement. He almost never throws deep passes, and, somehow, attempts even less outside the numbers.

Living over the intermediate middle is a dangerous game, and Jimmy tends to gamble, like on his two most recent interceptions that left were total head scratchers. So, it feels as if sticking with Garoppolo, also, puts a cap on the team’s overall chances, given how, at best, he’s a neutral presence, and, at worst, his mistakes have to actively be overcome to win. This all leaves the 49ers between a rock and a hard place for 2021.

I’ve thought waaaaaaay too much about this very topic.

PJ: The running game for the 49ers is still one of my personal favorites for how creative they are. Can you explain what this team does well in the running game?

TA: Kyle Shanahan absolutely adores running the football. He might be the only coach, nay person on planet Earth, who watched the three-pass performance by the Patriots on Monday Night Football and felt pangs of jealousy.

The 49ers rely on the outside zone scheme to soften up defenses and tire them out by working plays, as the name suggests, to the outside. This requires a ton of athleticism out of the offensive line, who have to be able to get into open space and engage defenders to create big lanes for backs to weave through.

Blocking, by every position group on the field, really is the team’s greatest strength. The commitment to win against their man on every down is what separates this run game. Also, having players like Trent Williams, George Kittle, and Kyle Juszczyk, who are physical freaks that genuinely love destroying people helps, too.

After playing with this idea for the past two seasons, they’ve gone full steam ahead this year and relied heavily on Deebo Samuel, a wide receiver by trade, in the run game. Given the limitations at the quarterback position, it’s absolutely the best way to get one of the team’s most electric playmakers the ball outside the numbers. Over the winning streak, Samuel carried the ball 19 times for 181 yards and 4 touchdowns. That element of creativity has been a huge key to the offense’s success.

PJ: What does San Francisco’s defense do well, and what have teams done to exploit them?

TA: Hmmm, this is a great question. What does this defense do well? I’ll say what this defense is trying to do well, and we’ll go from there. They want to bring pressure using only defensive linemen, expect coverage and run support from linebackers, and the secondary to not get toasted on anything deep.

Unfortunately, due to some injuries and utter lack of depth, this hasn’t exactly all gone to plan this year. Teams have consistently gone after Josh Norman or one of the other rookie/street free agents that they signed to replace Jason Verrett. This has often led to big plays or pass interference. Good news for you, Emmanuel Moseley, the other competent corner that’s been lining up across from these guys, is also out this week with a high ankle sprain, so it could be open season for Joe Burrow,

Similarly, the team has had issues containing the interior run game because they like to spread things out to better get pressure. If you don’t have a big, physical presence to eat space, which the Niners lost when Javon Kinlaw had his reconstructive ACL surgery, it can leave pretty wide open holes. They’ve adjusted slightly, but this can still pop up as an issue pretty regularly.

PJ: Who is one player you don’t think gets enough national attention that Bengals fans should be aware of?

There are a couple good options here. D.J. Jones might be one of the games best interior defensive lineman, Kyle Juszcyck has gotten about as much press as a fullback can, which still isn’t much, but I’ll have to go with Azeez Al-Shaair.

Al-Shaair started the season as the team’s third linebacker, who would probably have only seen the field about 30% of the time. This past Sunday, he filled in for Fred Warner as the MIKE linebacker, collecting 16(!) tackles and a key forced fumble in the process. He just barely missed on an interception, too.

He got bumped up to a big role in the second half of Week 1 when Dre Greenlaw, the team’s WILL linebacker went down, and he hasn’t looked back. A game has not gone by without him making some kind of extraordinary effort play. His speed and instincts jump off the screen, and the guy hits so hard that he bent his facemask against the Rams. Definitely worth looking out for on Sunday.

PJ: What is your prediction for Sunday’s game?

I’m torn on this one. It’s an Eastern Time Zone road game for a West Coast team, yet the Niners are 9-1 in those conditions since 2019. Most likely, rookie running back/possessed bowling ball Elijah Mitchell will be out with a concussion, but Deebo Samuel appears to be on track to play. The defense will be without its top two corners, but Nick Bosa seems really eager to sack his former college teammate.

This one feels like a total toss up, and just based on the way the Niners season has gone, like the type of game they’d win after blowing what should’ve been an easy one against the crumbling Seahawks. But I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger on feeling alone, and those Bengals’ wide receivers are a scary bunch, so I’ll say…

Bengals 33 - 49ers 31

Thanks again to Tyler Austin for taking time out to answer my questions. You can check out more of his work and 49ers coverage by heading over to Niners Nation.