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3 More Keys to 49ers-Jaguars

Nov 11, 2023 at 2:12 PM--

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The 5-3 San Francisco 49ers are set to take on the 6-2 Jacksonville Jaguars in a juicy week 10 matchup. With both teams coming off of their bye, this game should be a heated battle between two powerful contenders.

The 49ers are currently favored to win by 3 points, despite playing on the road and amidst a three-game losing streak. But taking down the AFC South-leading Jaguars will be no small feat. Here are the three biggest keys for the 49ers ahead of their second-half debut. For more, check out Wayne Brown's 5 Keys to Victory vs. Jaguars.

Hold the Line at Left Tackle

49ers left tackle Trent Williams' availability looms large. After suffering an ankle sprain in Week 6, the decorated offensive lineman hasn't been able to start either of the past two contests for San Francisco. That's thrust backup left tackle Jaylon Moore onto the front lines, where he hasn't come close to replicating Williams' prowess in both run and pass blocking. While the reps are certainly welcome for the third-year lineman, Moore simply needs to hold down the fort until the elite Williams can return.

When will that be? It's possible that Williams will play on Sunday against Jacksonville. As of writing, both head coach Kyle Shanahan and Williams himself have confirmed that the star left tackle's availability will be a game-time decision. The 49ers certainly don't want to run the risk of sidelining one of their premier players by rushing him back from injury, but if he doesn't come back, this will be the fifth week in which Williams has been unable to play. At some point, the 49ers need Trent Williams to return to the field if the team hopes to return to its best form down a tough stretch run that includes games against the Eagles, Seahawks (twice), and Ravens.

If Williams can't play on Sunday, San Francisco will need to place extra emphasis on shutting down Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen, who ranks fifth in the league in sacks (9.0) and QB hits (16), to go along with a pair of forced fumbles. If Allen can cause chaos and destabilize the 49ers' intricate run schemes early, it could be a long day for San Francisco.

Keep Calm and Coordinate On

It's official—49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will call plays from the sideline.

Why is this such huge news? Well, usually, sudden in-season coaching changes indicate some measure of critical dysfunction, like last year's controversy with Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett hiring a 'game awareness' assistant following multiple in-game coaching blunders. The 49ers certainly hope that this move doesn't rise remotely near the level of that catastrophe. But even if it does prove to be a quick fix for the defense, it's an uncommon move. While there doesn't exist much data for this type of NFL staffing movement, previous successful 49ers coordinators like Robert Saleh, DeMeco Ryans, and Vic Fangio never moved around like this.

If Wilks' move doesn't quiet down the team's latest defensive issues, it's a storyline that has the potential to spiral out of control. After fielding some of the NFL's best defenses during the past four years, the Niners started 2023 strong by ranking first in points allowed (13.6), second in passer rating allowed (70.9), and third in yards per play (4.43) during their first four games. But without the excuse of injury, SF's all-world defense has inexplicably slipped to 24th, 25th, and 30th in those metrics (respectively) since then.

The goal is for more direct communication between Wilks and LB Fred Warner, who wears the "green dot" on his helmet. Only coaches on the sideline can communicate to the players with green dots, which means play calls were coming from Wilks in the booth, to linebackers coach Johnny Holland on the sideline, who then relayed the call to Warner. The hope is that the more direct communication will help avoid ill-fated decisions like the all-out blitz that allowed the Vikings to score a fateful touchdown at the end of the first half in Week 7. If the players feel more at ease with receiving and implementing their schemes, the 49ers should return to the early-season dominance that propelled them to a huge winning streak.

Keep the Offense in Front

The final key is a bit of a combination—unlock running back Christian McCaffrey early, and prevent QB Brock Purdy from heavy pressure while playing from behind.

McCaffrey, while still the league's leading rusher, has seen his output drop precipitously over the 49ers' latest losing streak. Early deficits have played a role in this, with McCaffrey's touches being limited while playing from behind. If San Francisco can lean on his talent and gash the Jaguars on the ground, they're entirely capable of putting this game away early. Additionally, it would give McCaffrey a shot to make history—a touchdown in this game would mark his 18th straight, an NFL record that he alone would hold.

Generating opportunities for McCaffrey becomes doubly important given Brock Purdy's recent struggles with taking care of the football. With 5 interceptions in the last 3 games (and 3 turnovers in the final quarter of Week 8's game against Cincinnati), Purdy has opened himself up to concerns about his ability to perform in clutch time. These concerns are a little overinflated. Purdy has been pressured heavily during his turnovers, which makes them a bit more understandable, but nevertheless he needs to show growth in that area.

The best way to overcome late errors, though, is to put the pedal to the metal and control the game early, and that's something that Purdy's excelled at so far in his career. With the return of WR Deebo Samuel, San Francisco's offensive playmakers must victimize Jacksonville's defense early and often. It's a task easier said than done against a fellow heavyweight, but no team in the league is built to capitalize on an early lead better than the 49ers.
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