Gore and Fletcher both key figures in 49ers/'Skins
The 49ers already are the first West Coast team since 1996 to win three games in the Eastern time zone, and Sunday they can become the first San Francisco team to start 4-0 on the road since 1992 when they face the host Washington Redskins. NinersDigest identifies the keys to the game and what the 6-1 Niners need to do to beat the Redskins and match their best start since 1997.
The usual dose of Frank Gore
San Francisco’s two-time Pro Bowl halfback is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of his record-breaking career, and it’s no coincidence the first-place Niners are riding right along with him to match their best start of the 21st century. Gore’s persistent pounding is the engine that’s driving the machine right now for San Francisco’s offense, and like other opponents, the Redskins will be gearing their defense to stop him. Washington ranks 14th in the NFL in total defense, but just 21st in stopping the run. Gore is just the fourth player since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to rush for 125 yards or more and score on a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games. Gore doesn’t necessarily have to keep those streaks alive against the Redskins, but the Niners do need to keep riding the horse that has gotten them to where they are.
Another beatdown of Beck
Quarterback John Beck was sacked a franchise-record 10 times last week by the Buffalo Bills in a 23-0 loss, handing Washington’s Mike Shanahan the first shutout loss of his NFL career as a head coach or assistant. Washington is struggling to protect its inconsistent quarterback, who is 0-6 as a NFL starter. The Niners need to make this another miserable Sunday for Beck, pressuring and hitting him and keeping Washington’s passing game out of sync. OLBs Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks and DE Justin Smith have combined for 15 sacks this season, and with DE Ray McDonald not in uniform this game due to a hamstring injury, the Niners need that trio to turn up the heat and keep it too hot for Beck and the Redskins.
The best Davis
Niners star tight end Vernon Davis still is San Francisco’s leading receiver entering today’s game, but he has only five receptions for just 35 yards over the past two games – his least productive two-game stretch of the season. On the other side of the ball, the Redskins rely heavily on fourth-year tight end Fred Davis to spark their inconsistent passing game. Davis is Washington’s runaway leading receiver this season with 36 catches for 517 yards, and he’s on a pace to have the top receiving season by a tight end in Redskins history. Davis has been Washington’s leading receiver in each of the past three games and has 20 receptions over that span. Davis was hampered all week by an ankle injury that has him listed as questionable to play against the 49ers, but pregame indications suggest Davis will start Sunday’s game. Vernon Davis, in his first game in his hometown since joining the 49ers, would like to have a breakout game before family and friends and the Niners need to keep his counterpart in check.
The run stops here
The Redskins rank just 26th in the NFL in rushing offense and produced only a paltry 26 yards rushing on 12 carries last week against Buffalo. But given the condition of Washington’s passing game, the Redskins must try to get something going on the ground on their home turf to stay in the game and gain control of the tempo. That will be a tough go for Washington against a rugged San Francisco unit that leads the NFL in rushing defense, allowing just 73.4 yards per game. The Niners simply want to follow their script of previous weeks – stuffing the run to force their opponent to become one-dimensional and have to beat them through the air.
More big plays to San Francisco wideouts
Given Washington’s difficulty in scoring (26th in NFL at 16.6 points per game), and with San Francisco leading the NFL in scoring defense (allowing just 15.3 points per game), this should be a good opportunity for the 49ers to take some shots down the field and work on a deep passing game that has been mostly nonexistent so far this season. Michael Crabtree was able to slip behind the Cleveland defense several times last week, and one of those times resulted in a 41-yard reception. With this being Braylon Edwards’ second game back in the lineup after injuring his knee in Week 2, the 49ers will have their top two big-play threats on the edges working together and quarterback Alex Smith needs to start hooking up with them more often down the field to loosen the defense and start giving future opponents more to think about. Edwards and Crabtree have a decided size advantage over Washington cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, another factor the Niners should attempt to exploit.
Contain OLBs Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan on the edges
The Redskins rank fifth in the NFL with 23 sacks, and their most favorable matchup of this game could come on the defensive edges with Orakpo and Kerrigan both possessing play-making ability and presenting tough matchups. Orakpo and Kerrigan also are each tied for sixth in the NFL with two forced fumbles, so they set the tempo for the Washington defense and create opportunities for teammates around them. The 49ers must not allow this duo to create havoc and make a difference in the game.
Keep a hat on London Fletcher
Orakpo and Kerrigan like to fly up the field and can take themselves out of plays, which is one reason the Redskins are susceptible to the run. Middle linebacker Fletcher is usually the defender who is left to clean up plays and make tackles at the second level, and he is having a terrific season while leading the Redskins with 82 tackles. Fletcher had a dominant 20 tackles last week against the Bills to go along with half a sack, two QB hits and an interception. Fletcher is going to get his tackles, but the 49ers must get helmets and bodies on him at the second level to prevent him from regularly getting to Gore and San Francisco’s running game before it can get started.
Win field position with special teams
The Redskins are a different team at home, and they will be desperate to end a three-game losing streak to remain in contention and get back to .500 at midseason. That suggests the 49ers could be in for a real battle despite Washington’s recent struggles, and this could become a low-scoring affair where field position will be key throughout the afternoon. With kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee booming their kicks regularly, the 49ers will need to continue to get both the standard fine play from those two specialists and the coverage teams that play with them to keep the upper hand in this one.