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The San Francisco 49ers come off their bye and will look to upend the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road in Week 12. Here are some storylines to watch for this unheralded contest.


Impacting the 2019 NFL Draft order could be the only long-term storyline emanating from the San Francisco 49ers' Week 12 road contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday, Nov. 25.

After all, the 2-8 Niners and 3-7 Bucs are competing for top positioning in April's draft.

The short argument would be the team losing is in better position to secure a highly coveted No. 1 overall draft pick. Yet there are a lot more X-factors riding on this game than one might expect.

During the bye week, head coach Kyle Shanahan sent a message to his players indicating these final six games are essentially auditions for 2019 and beyond. So, while fans and pundits may want the 49ers to tank, Shanahan and Co. will want to see their players' best efforts put forward.

That starts in Tampa Bay.

And it also kicks off the theme behind our first aspect of Sunday's game worth watching.

No. 5: Possible Lineup and Role Changes


Winning is still important to Shanahan and the players. But so is evaluating what he has deeper on the roster. Some veterans, like defensive tackle Arik Armstead and defensive back Jimmie Ward, have a lot riding on this particular contest and all the way to 2018's conclusion. They're essentially playing for their respective futures with the franchise.

At the same time, though, it wouldn't be a shock to see some changes. Rookie defensive tackle Jullian Taylor has spent most of the season on the weekly inactive list. It's possible he winds up seeing some snaps Sunday, taking would-be reps away from Armstead.

With Pierre Garçon (knee) ruled out for the game, one would also expect to see younger wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis get increased looks. Pettis, who has been hampered by various injuries his rookie year, has been limited to just seven catches for 108 yards and a touchdown -- not exactly the kind of production one would want from a second-round NFL Draft pick.

No. 4: Solomon Thomas Moving to the Inside


It might finally happen in Week 12 -- defensive end Solomon Thomas staying put on the inside instead of being miscast as an outside edge rusher.

"Solly's been working hard to develop," general manager John Lynch told KNBR 680 (h/t David Bonilla of 49ers Webzone). "I think when we drafted him, we felt like where he could be an impact player (is) as an inside pass rusher. I hope to see him here in those last six games in those positions, and we can see."

Thomas has done a good job on the outside against the run. But that's not why he was drafted at No. 3 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. No, the Niners envisioned him being a quality pass-rusher, yet those efforts off the edge haven't translated over to the pro level.

Fortunately, Thomas has flashed some promise rushing from the inside. And it looks as if the 49ers are planning on maximizing those efforts for the rest of the season.

No. 3: Can Ahkello Witherspoon Bounce Back?


Second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon might just want to forget his efforts in Week 10 against the New York Giants, during which he allowed a touchdown pass to Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., threw up his arms in frustration towards his fellow defensive backs and earned a bit of criticism in the process.

Despite its own woes, especially at quarterback, the Buccaneers' pass offense still ranks tops in the league with 3,610 yards. Tampa Bay boasts two big-play receiving threats, wide receivers Mike Adams and DeSean Jackson. That means, while fellow corner Richard Sherman is locking down his side of the field, Witherspoon will be primarily tasked with handling one of these two Bucs weapons.

Witherspoon's efforts here will go a long way in determining whether or not the Niners pass defense can hold.

No. 2: Nick Mullens' First Road Start


As expected, second-year quarterback Nick Mullens cooled off a bit against New York. While he tossed two interceptions that game, it's hard to peg the 27-23 loss squarely on his shoulders.

At any rate, Mullens should take some comfort knowing the Buccaneers pass defense is about as bad as the one he faced with the Oakland Raiders during his NFL debut back in Week 9. Entering Week 12, the Bucs are giving up an average of 7.8 yards per pass attempt, which ranks next to last in the league. They've also allowed more passing touchdowns than anyone else (25) and are boasting a league-high 329 points given up.

While Tampa Bay's pass rush is notably better this year, the fact that some of the best front-seven defenders are banged up and questionable for the contest bodes well for Mullens and Co.

So does the fact that Mullens has been exceptional over his two starts at getting the ball out quickly.

No. 1: The Turnover Battle


It's a prime weakness-versus-weakness aspect coming in as the No. 1 storyline to watch for this game.

Neither the 49ers nor Buccaneers are particularly good at forcing turnovers. The Niners have just five defensive takeaways on the season, which ranks dead last in the league. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is next to last with six. The Buccaneers defense has just one interception on the season, which is just behind San Francisco's two pass takeaways.

Go figure, both teams rank last and next to last in this category, respectively.

Yet the Buccaneers have been exceptionally prone to turning the ball over, too. Out of their 29 total turnovers lost (most in the NFL entering Week 12), 23 have come off interceptions, which is leading the league by a long shot. And as a result, the Bucs have a minus-23 turnover differential.

Meanwhile, the 49ers' differential is minus-15. So, advantage San Francisco, one might assume. Although it's not exactly an area in which either team is effective.

The 49ers and Buccaneers kick off at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Nov. 25 from Raymond James Stadium.

Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to @PeterPanacy on Twitter.