Here are five things to watch when the San Francisco 49ers try to get their first road victory of the season Sunday against the 3-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 49ers on Saturday afternoon announced Marquise Goodwin’s status was downgraded to “doubtful” as he was excused from the team to deal with a personal matter. If Goodwin doesn’t play, quarterback Nick Mullens will be without his two starting receivers after Pierre Garçon was ruled out Friday with an ongoing knee issue that caused him to miss the last game against the New York Giants.
That means San Francisco is likely to start rookie Dante Pettis and second-year pro Kendrick Bourne at receiver against Tampa Bay’s 28th-ranked passing defense that last week allowed 359 yards to New York.
San Francisco traded up in the second round of the recent NFL draft to take Pettis, but he’s gotten off to a slow start after making a strong impression during training camp. The Washington alum had four catches last game – his first receptions since Week 2 – but they went for a total of 12 yards. He was used predominately on screen passes.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan indicated he’s eager to see how Pettis finishes off his season after dealing with injuries earlier. He missed three games with a knee injury suffered during a punt return Week 4 against the Chargers, and has caught just half of his 14 targets.
“I feel like this last week or so is the first I’ve seen him get back to the form I thought he was at around the Minnesota game, which was the first game of the year,” Shanahan said Friday.
“(I) thought Dante was going to have a huge game versus Detroit. He got banged up throughout that game and it really set him back. Tried to play through it for a couple weeks and it ended up putting him down for about a month. He’s kind of been fighting his way back since then. This last month where he has gotten healthier, he’s gotten better each week but he hasn’t fully gotten back to where he started out.”
Goodwin’s speed has proven invaluable to San Francisco’s offense, which Pettis will have to replicate playing the “X” receiver role designed to stretch the defense and create space for everything else. Bourne has steadily improved in Garçon’s “Z” position, and he’s tied for second on the team with three touchdown grabs.
“When he has gotten those opportunities, he’s taken advantage of them,” Shanahan said of Bourne. “I think he’s going in the right direction. I’ve been happy with KB.”
Reuben Foster’s big six-game stretch
The 49ers’ prized second-year linebacker hasn’t lived up to his promising rookie showing. His tumultuous offseason away from the team certainly didn’t help, but his health has also been an issue. Foster missed the last two games with a hamstring strain while dealing with ongoing shoulder pain throughout the season.
Foster was listed as “questionable” to play against the Buccaneers, but he appears on track to return for the first time since Oct. 28. The 49ers are hoping nearly a month between games can kick-start the final stretch of his second season and he’ll resemble the player he was in 2017, when he was widely regarded as one of the best young linebackers in football.
“He’s looked better each day. This has been his first week of practice, but he’s been able to practice all week,” Shanahan said.
Foster leads the 49ers with 12 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, despite missing four of the first 10 games. He missed 10 tackles in 10 games as a rookie when he was named to the NFL’s All-Rookie team.
Can Nick Mullens bring his game on the road?
The 49ers’ new signal caller hasn’t looked out of place against the Raiders and Giants, who are 5-15 combined and have two of the league’s worst defenses. The Buccaneers don’t seem much better, but they have the benefit of playing at home in Raymond James Stadium while Mullens’ first two starts came in his comfortable confines of Santa Clara.
It will be the first time to see if Mullens’ practice against crowd noise will pay off. During his time at home away from the team, Mullens pumps stadium noise through his headphones and practices calling plays to his teammates.
“That definitely is a new challenge,” he said of his first road game. “I haven’t played on the road yet, but I think this team is excited and we’re ready. … It’s important for me that I just keep my same mindset. It only matters what you do on the field and don’t let the environment impact the way you play.”
In his small, two-game sample size against struggling teams, Mullens leads San Francisco’s signal callers in completion percentage (70.5), yards per game (256), yards per attempt (8.4) and quarterback rating (104.0).
The former practice squad member isn’t going to displace Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter when healthy, but Mullens could give C.J. Beathard a run for his money as the primary backup in 2019, which should give Mullens all the inspiration he needs to play well as the season winds down. And it helping his team get its first road victory since last December won’t hurt.
Does Winston have the holiday spirit?
Opposing offenses haven’t given the 49ers many gifts this season. Takeaways have been hard to come by, but that could change Sunday with Jameis Winston starting at quarterback for the Bucs.
Winston is slated to make his fourth start of the year while coach Dirk Koetter has already made four quarterback changes this season, largely because of turnovers.
“That’s the thing that’s led to the majority of our turnovers as a team, is just inconsistent decision making at quarterback,” Koetter said this week.
The 49ers’ 24th-ranked passing defense has just two interceptions this season, while Winston has thrown 11 in five games. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, who began the year as the starter while Winston was serving a three-game suspension for allegedly groping an Uber driver, has thrown 12 picks in eight games.
The Buccaneers have a productive offense when they aren’t giving the ball away. They rank first averaging 459 yards per game. San Francisco’s minus-15 turnover differential is second worst in the league behind only Tampa Bay.
Can the 49ers finally finish?
The last time Shanahan’s team played before the recent bye, it gave up a fourth-quarter lead to the struggling Giants. They lost the game in similar fashion as earlier defeats to the Chargers, Packers and Cardinals.
Aside from the injury to Garoppolo, the key theme of 2018 has been the 49ers’ inability to finish games.
And while beating Tampa Bay wouldn’t be all that impressive, it would certainly be a step in the right direction as Shanahan tries to figure out how to reinvigorate his team as it wades through a second-straight losing season to begin his tenure.
He has said he wants to use the final six games to figure out who belongs on the roster, which includes finding players to help win games late.
“You come back (from the bye) and people might think you don’t have much to play for,” Shanahan said. “You have everything to play for. You have your career, you have your livelihood, you have the guys next to you and you have showing people that you want to be in this building. When you start to think of that, you think of all the challenges ahead. I’m excited to do it.”