The Stillers and Niners, each rested after a bye week, square off Sunday at 4:15 PM EST in San Fran. The Niners have an alarming 3-game losing streak, while the Stillers have a modest 2-game winning streak, having beaten Cinci and Atlanta.
The two QBs will fill crucial roles in this game. Jeff Garcia, the man Tom Donahoe refused to reschedule for a tryout, will make his 5th start of the year for the 49ers. With Young apparently out for the season, Garcia should be settling into the job of starting QB for the rest of the season. Garcia brings with him average stats --- a worse passer rating than Stewart, and more INTs (6) than TDs (3). San Fran's passing attack has staggered a bit this season, but with Owens, Rice, and Stokes, there's vast capability to strike quick and strike often. My biggest fear is Travis Davis -- the obvious weak link in the starting secondary -- failing to provide any help to the CBs. The Niner running game is terribly weak, and with the prospect of facing a pretty stout Stiller defense, the Niners will likely only run a dozen ground plays, instead giving Garcia loads of chances to throw from the shotgun.
The Niner defense has been little more than a skeleton defense this season, having given up the 2d highest points total in the NFL, as well as given up 40+ points in 3 games this season. Their defense is ripe for the picking, but clearly our offense is hardly the offense to do it. What will be most interesting to watch for, is what our offense does, or at least tries to do, on Sunday. Will we see more of the same old 15-Cent Nickel & Dime Offense? Or will Gilbride finally allow a few deepish plays to be called, and will Stewart have the backbone to actually execute those plays instead of dumping off to the safety valve? The Niner run defense has been pretty soft this year, so this would be the time to re-establish some good old-fashioned smashmouth football. In fact, Fat Brenston Buckner starts on the DL for San Fran, so it would make sense to pound Bettis and Huntley at Fat Brenston and move the chains at will. The other thing to consider, is that those 40-point give-ups by the SF defense have come against pretty capable offenses -- Jax, Rams, and Vikes. These O's all pose far greater threats than Courtney Hawkins, Mark Bruener, and Jon Witman, so it's a bit deceiving to think that we can simply mimic those 3 teams and ravage the SF defense.
One interesting SF threat could be their KO return game, which features 3 players --- Phillips, Prioleau, and McQuarters --- all averaging over 20 yards per return. Given the softee nature of our coverage teams, this could be a grave concern on Sunday.
Since the bye week supposedly should give the staff time to analyze problems and oil the squeaky wheel, here are the things I hope I see (but I sure ain't holding my breath):
- Hunt playing some FB, as well as TB.
- Stewart tossing at least 4 passes over 25 yards in distance
- Brown booting his KOs at least to the 5-yard line
- solid tackling using ARMS, not just helmet
- consistent pressure on Garcia, who has had to run for his life thus far this season behind a porous offensive line
Prediction: My preseason prediction for this game, which had us being 4-3 at this time, was a loss. This game has turned into 1 of the tougher picks this year for me. On one hand, the grass and road game typically spell disaster for the Stillers. Sure, we've won 2 road games on grass this year -- against the NFL junior varsity, Ravens and Browns. The Browns were a joke, but we struggled mightily against the Ravens. One other factor is the 49er 3-game losing streak --- can the Niners lose 4 in a row?? Sure, this is no longer a great team, but there's loads of veteran leadership on their roster, and if they have any integrity at all, they won't allow the team to flounder around without putting up a fierce fight on Sunday. On the other hand, it's plausible to think that the Stillers have earned some confidence, almost all on defense, and could --- repeat COULD --- have used this bye week to work out the kinks in a sagging offense. That's the biggest unknown variable when I look at this game --- has Cowhead, Gilbride, Stewart and company worked out the kinks, or have they sat around playing grabass the past 11 days? I fear the latter. It's hard to fathom that Gilbride and Cowher, with months, not just 1 week, available in the off-season to fix the broken '98 offense, will suddenly wake up one morning and come to their senses. If they've been stubborn and blind from February until now, it's far-fetched to think a lobotomy has occurred out of the blue within the past 11 days. Final Score: San Fran 16, Stillers 13.
The Still Mill