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What’s worth watching in 49ers’ season finale

Dec 29, 2018 at 6:27 PM


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When the San Francisco 49ers walk off the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum, it will mark the end of a season many have been wanting to come to a close for a long time.

It has been a painful campaign for the Niners, who unsurprisingly never recovered from the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3 and in reality have been playing out the string since that point.

Yet, while most are already looking towards the offseason and the draft, there remain numerous reasons to pay close attention to the 49ers' season finale with the Los Angeles Rams as they pit themselves against a Super Bowl contender. Here we look at what matters in Week 17.

Kittle's pursuit of history


You won't hear Kyle Shanahan saying as such, but the result is immaterial for the Niners and, for most, is secondary to George Kittle's pursuit of NFL history.

Kittle is 100 yards shy of setting the record for the most yards in a season by an NFL tight end. The problem he has is that Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce is just 54 yards adrift of achieving the same feat, and has a favorable matchup against the Oakland Raiders.

In the blowout loss to the Rams in October, Kittle racked up 98 yards on five catches, so a monster game that could put him in a position to leapfrog Kelce is not of question. For him to put together such a performance, the Niners will need to get Kittle the ball early and often, and it is his attempt to break the current record held by Rob Gronkowski that is the most interesting aspect of this regular-season finale from a San Francisco perspective.

Nick Mullens' final exam


Save for one disappointing showing in a Week 12 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when nobody on the 49ers played well, Nick Mullens has earned a strong grade in every game he has played since taking over for C.J. Beathard in Week 9.

Even though he only led the 49ers to nine points in their tight loss to the Chicago Bears last week, Mullens' performance in moving off his spot to buy time and making throws under pressure from an excellent pass rush was an admirable one and provided further evidence he can be a successful quarterback in the NFL.

He now seems a certain bet to be the Niners' backup next year, with the Rams his final test before he gets set to hand the reins back to Jimmy Garoppolo. Confidence in his ability to put the 49ers in a position to contend should his services be needed again in 2019 will grow if he can impress once more against the fearsome front of the Rams.

49ers interior OL vs. Rams DL


While Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley have been widely praised for their respective performances at tackle this season, the interior of the offensive line has often been a weak spot in pass protection, and that was the case the last time these teams met when Aaron Donald had four sacks.

Donald needs only 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 for most in a single season, and if he is able to do so there may be more scrutiny on those in the middle of the 49ers O-Line going into the offseason.

The durability of left guard Laken Tomlinson, who has played 100 per cent of the snaps on offense this season, has been hailed while Kyle Shanahan recently labelled Weston Richburg as "a very good center who is only going to get better" amid criticism of his play in his first season as a 49er.

Tomlinson was signed to a three-year extension before the season while Richburg's ability to get to the second level is crucial to San Francisco's run game. However, should the interior linemen endure another tough afternoon against Donald and Co., the Niners may look to upgrade at right guard, with starter Mike Person scheduled to be a free agent in 2019.

Elijah Lee's last audition


The release of Reuben Foster hasn't hurt the Niners as much as may have been expected. In a clear indicator of how poorly Foster was playing in his sophomore season, the Niners' linebacking corps has functioned well in his absence, with Fred Warner and Elijah Lee forming a promising partnership.

Lee's late-season emergence at Will linebacker has been a pleasant surprise. He has 21 combined tackles over his last two games and has won consistent praise from coaches and players alike.


He figures to contend for a starting role in 2019 and Sunday provides Lee a huge opportunity to enhance his reputation against a Rams team whose play-action game should sternly test both him and Warner.

Los Angeles had success using two tight ends in their Week 16 win over the Arizona Cardinals and, with their passing game having struggled more than usual since the loss of Cooper Kupp to a season-ending injury, may regularly look to put Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field at the same time again versus the Niners.

The onus would be largely be on Warner and Lee to defend that duo and give a 49ers defense that has improved down the stretch the best chance of slowing down the Rams. San Francisco is likely to add reinforcements at linebacker in the offseason, but another strong showing from Lee may convince the Niners that doing so is not too high of a priority.

Harris the heat-seeking safety


One of the reasons the Niners defense has been more competent and substantially more fun to watch in recent weeks has been the superb play of Marcell Harris.

With Jaquiski Tartt again on the shelf through injury, Harris had made the most of his opportunity to start at strong safety. He has been a hard-hitting, heat-seeking missile at the position, showing an ability to get downhill in a hurry and chase to the sideline, Harris making multiple key stops in the overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks that has served as the highlight of a disappointing season.

Shanahan has already confirmed that Harris, per Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area, will get his shot to compete for the full-time starting role in 2019, but his performance in a meaningless season finale is unlikely to give him an early edge over Tartt.

There will, however, be a growing number of people calling for Harris to be the guy ahead of a player who has struggled to stay healthy in Tartt should the rookie sixth-rounder deliver another entertaining and effective display against arguably the best offense in football.
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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