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4 burning questions the 49ers must answer in Washington

Marc Adams
Dec 30, 2023 at 4:32 AM--

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The San Francisco 49ers were the talk of the NFL until their Christmas night loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Now they're a team in need of two more wins (in two games) to grab home-field advantage and the bye week that comes from being the top seed in the conference.

And the first step is to beat the Washington Commanders on Sunday. The Commanders are a mess this season, but it is an East Coast trip for the 49ers. They'll be playing an early start game, which isn't easy for West Coast teams, and the 49ers are banged up right now.

In order to take the first step towards clinching the top seed by beating the Commanders, the 49ers need to answer these four burning questions:

1. How will Brock Purdy respond?

Brock Purdy had his worst game as an NFL quarterback on Monday night, throwing four interceptions. The first was a bad read/decision. Deebo Samuel was the third read in Purdy's progression, and as a result, the throw was a little late. Had Samuel been the first or second read, it would have been a touchdown.

The second was bad luck. Purdy's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage. It fell into the arms of a defender.

The third was a combination of a bad decision and bad luck. Purdy decided to throw the ball to George Kittle, who was tightly covered, instead of throwing the ball away. The ball bounced off Kittle and into the arms of a defender. Christian McCaffrey was called for an illegal chop block, so regardless of what the 49ers offense did, it wasn't going to count.

And the last one was bad blocking. Colton McKivitz allowed his man to get to Purdy and hit the QB as he was letting go of the ball.

Purdy is a gunslinger and a risk-taker. That's part of what has made him so good. But sometimes, he tries too hard to make a play when there's no play to be made. Still, he makes better decisions than any of the other quarterbacks Kyle Shanahan has had in his 49ers tenure.

The good news is that Purdy should have left tackle Trent Williams back, and he'll be facing the 32nd-ranked pass defense (31st-ranked defense overall).

2. How will the offensive line respond?

Purdy wasn't the only one who had a bad game. The offensive line did, as well. They allowed too much pressure and too many hits on their quarterback.

Williams went down, and then his backup, Jaylon Moore went down. Then left guard Aaron Banks went down. At that point, the offensive line was being held together with duct tape, with right guard Spencer Burford playing right tackle, McKivitz playing left tackle, and Ben Bartch playing left guard.

The good news is that the line should be a little more steady this week, and they will be facing one of the worst defenses in the league. But don't sleep on the Washington defensive front. They're no joke and can cause some problems for offensive lines.

3. How will injuries shape the lineup?

The list of injured 49ers is growing. Williams should be able to play, but what about the others? Here's the long list:

DT Arik Armstead (foot, knee) won't play. The 49ers signed DT Sebastian Joseph-Day, who should help the run defense. Expect to see Javon Kinlaw start in Armstead's place, just like last week. Kevin Givens will see a lot of action, as well.

Banks (toe) doesn't sound likely to play. He's listed as questionable. Jon Feliciano will most likely start at left guard, with Burford moving back to right guard.

S Ji'Ayir Brown (knee) doesn't sound like he'll play for a while. In Brown's place, we will see either Logan Ryan or Isaiah Oliver. Ryan has a lot of experience and it sounds like some of the defensive players have been impressed with his communication on the field.

WR Jauan Jennings (concussion) is out for Sunday's game, as he continues to work through the concussion protocol. The 49ers opened Danny Gray's practice window this week. He could be a possibility to take Jennings' spot on Sunday. Chris Conley is the more likely replacement, though.

Ambry Thomas (hamstring) is listed as questionable, so it's possible he could play on Sunday. If he can't, would Jason Verrett play in his place?

Oren Burks (knee) was also limited. If he can't play, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles would be the guy to take his spot, just like last week.

I'd list Moore (concussion) as doubtful. He still has to pass the concussion protocol, and there is one less day to do so, having played on Monday night, so I never thought he'd play this week.

The 49ers need to win the final two games and wrap up the top seed. This team desperately needs the bye week.

4. Who will return kicks?

Ronnie Bell has been shaky at punt returner, putting the ball on the ground in both of the last two games. Will Shanahan stick with him, or will they put someone else back there? Ray-Ray McCloud isn't able to return until week 18, against the Rams.

The backups at punt returner are Kyle Juszczyk, Brandon Aiyuk (who was fielding punts in practice last week) and McCaffrey, who I wouldn't expect to see back there unless it's a critical situation.

Samuel has been the kick returner with McCloud out, but he's dealing with a neck injury, so we could see someone else. Matt Barrows, in his mailbag for "The Athletic," mentioned that Thomas has returned kicks before. But again, he's dealing with a hamstring. If Gray is active, could he potentially return kicks?

The 49ers must answer these four burning questions on Sunday in Washington if they hope to return to the Bay Area with a win. San Francisco needs two wins to clinch the top seed in the NFC, or one win and a loss by the Eagles and Lions.

The postseason has essentially begun.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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