49ers-Eagles: 5 burning questions heading into Sunday's Week 4 matchup
Along with my usual post-game recaps of the 49ers' game, I will also be doing a weekly preview ahead of their matchup. In trying to decide the best format, I've settled on trying to post five burning questions about the upcoming contest and then attempting to answer them.
Before the season began, the Philadelphia Eagles visiting the 49ers on Sunday Night Football was a game I had circled, given the fact that it was two playoff teams facing off on prime-time, with two championship-level offensive head coaches.
Instead, the Eagles have not won a game this season, dropping two of their three games in ugly fashion. San Francisco had a bumpy start to the season with a loss to Arizona, but have bounced back against the two worst teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, both teams' injury list for Sunday is longer than a Costco receipt and there will be numerous backups all over the field.
The 49ers will be without Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley among others, but do get back George Kittle and Deebo Samuel this week. Doug Pederson's Eagles will be missing receivers DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and left tackle Jason Peters among others.
So what will happen when an injury-riddled desperate team meets their match and face off against each other?
1. What can we expect from Deebo Samuel in his 2020 debut and George Kittle from his return after missing the last two weeks?
Kyle Shanahan gets his two-best receiving threats back this week, after missing them the last two weeks. Samuel finished his rookie season strong, both in the pass and run game and I'd expect for him to be involved in both facets again.
Considering he is just coming off Injured Reserve on Friday, I would not expect for the 49ers to immediately throw one of their best offensive skill players into the deep end. Shanahan mentioned that there wouldn't be a pitch count for Samuel, but they would try to ease him in.
Brandon Aiyuk certainly showed some flash last week, finishing the game with five catches for 70 yards and three rushes for 31 yards, including a huge touchdown run in the second half to blow the game open. If I had to guess, Aiyuk sees more snaps than Samuel this week, especially given their similar skill set.
On the flip side, George Kittle seems like he's 100 percent healthy and ready to go on Sunday. His likely matchup -- Eagles' linebacker Nathan Gerry -- has given up 13 catches on 13 targets for 158 yards this season and allows 1.45 yards per coverage snap, which ranks 59th out of 74 qualifying linebackers.
The Nick Mullens-George Kittle connection should be thriving on Sunday's against the Eagles' shoddy pass coverage.
2. Can the 49ers' rag-tag defensive line generate pressure against Carson Wentz and the Eagles?
Kris Kocurek's unit has felt the early blow of the injuries worse than any other position group -- losing stars Nick Bosa and Dee Ford in a span of a week. Despite being down their two-most effective edge rushers, Kocurek has managed to manufacture pressure against Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones with a young group of linemen.
This is the most talented quarterback that they have faced since Week 1, so can the 49ers' defensive line once again get in the backfield and disrupt Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz?
The Eagles have given up a total of 41 pressures and 10 sacks through three weeks (which are both in the bottom-10 of the NFL). Their adjusted sack rate is 7.9 percent and ranks 22nd in the NFL, so clearly their offensive line is a weak point. With injuries to left tackle Jason Peters, the Eagles will start former rugby player Jordan Mailata, who's only played 20 snaps so far this season.
The likes of Kerry Hyder Jr., Kevin Givens, Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead and the veteran combo of Ziggy Ansah and Dion Jordan should be able to get home on Wentz.
3. Who are the 49ers' cornerbacks this Sunday and can they slow down the Eagles' passing attack?
With Richard Sherman still on Injured Reserve for one more week and Emmanuel Moseley sidelined with a concussion, the 49ers will likely lean on the same starting duo that played last week in New York.
Jason Verrett and Dontae Johnson will likely start on the outside, with the nickel corner spot still up in the air. K'Waun Williams is questionable with a hip injury and if he can't go, Jamar Taylor will assume the spot in the 49ers' nickel defense.
Verrett played pretty well in his return, but Johnson was a major question mark, giving up numerous catches to Giants' receiver Darius Slayton and looking out of sorts.
Luckily for the 49ers, the Eagles' receiving corps couldn't be any more banged up, with Greg Ward Jr. (a former college quarterback) leading the way as their best receiver. Jeffery and Jackson are both out for Sunday's game and former Eagles' receiver Nelson Agholor is in Las Vegas this season.
Tight end Dallas Goedert was placed on Injured Reserve and that leaves Zach Ertz as Wentz' most comfortable weapon -- but the 49ers have arguably the best coverage linebacker in the NFL to matchup with Ertz.
4. Who's the X-factor for Sunday's game?
The 49ers' interior offensive line. It's been a glaring weakness since last season, when they couldn't slow the likes of Aaron Donald and Grady Jarrett and it hasn't improved much more this season.
Guards Daniel Brunskill and Laken Tomlinson account for 16 of the team's total 31 pressures and they have their toughest test of the season on Sunday -- Eagles' Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson.
Both Cox have 11 pressures each, while edge defender Brandon Graham has 10. In order to give Nick Mullens a clean pocket and time to effectively maneuver the offense, the interior of the 49ers' offensive line needs to hold up.
If the 49ers' line can with this matchup, they should cruise to a victory.
5. Who wins and why?
I'll roll with the 49ers in another close game. They are the healthier of the two teams and it looks like Carson Wentz might be playing the worst football of his career, throwing six interceptions in three weeks.
San Francisco is returns Deebo Samuel and George Kittle and while the lack of defensive backs do worry me a little bit, the Eagles don't have the receiving corps to take advantage of it.
It'll be closer than most predict and with the 49ers favored by seven points, I'm not sure if they'll cover, but it'll be a tight one. I'll go 49ers, 23-17.
(Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine. Follow @akashanav on Twitter for more content.)
(Cover Image via Nhat Meyer, BANG)