Oh, boy — look at this one.
49ers at Redskins? Sheesh.
The 5-0(!) 49ers are traveling west to east for an early start (there’s one good thing for the home team) against the below-average-across-the-board Washington Redskins — a team that just notched a one-point win against the Dolphins. And while it’s probably still possible to make a case that “the 49ers haven’t played anyone yet” (given how the Rams have looked lately), it’s not as if Washington is well-equipped to finally put them to the test.
You probably have better things to do with your time than read several paragraphs of me trying to pretend that there might be some way the Washington players are anything but a prayer this week. Only the Patriots have allowed fewer yards than the 49ers. Only the Patriots have allowed fewer points than the 49ers. Only four teams have fewer yards per game than the Redskins. Only two teams have fewer points.
If you’re in the prayer-throwing mood, Wendell Smallwood will fill the Chris Thompson role if the latter misses with his toe injury (though it’s Thompson’s ability with the ball in his hands that makes him valuable, rather than his role), and Adrian Peterson should again be fed a heavy dose of touches (in a much tougher matchup than he had last week). And of course, Terry McLaurin is a football god who has been held down only by Stephon Gilmore to date; though there hasn’t been much in football this year more difficult than “throwing deep on the 49ers,” as they have now allowed only two completions (on 20 attempts) on passes traveling 20+ yards downfield — with two interceptions added for good measure.
The other side of this matchup is fairly straightforward as well, as we have a 49ers team that prefers to lean on the run (first in the NFL in rush play rate — ahead of the Vikings, Ravens, and Seahawks) while splitting touches among multiple backs (Matt Breida has recent touch counts of 16 // 14 // 17, while Tevin Coleman has seen touch counts since returning of 16 // 20, and Raheem Mostert has even remained involved with seven and four touches of his own), and spreading the ball thin among wide receivers (no wideout has seen more than seven targets on this team, and there have been only four instances of a wideout topping four looks) and funneling the passing attack primarily through George Kittle (eight or more targets in all but one game).
While the wideouts have been getting more involved lately (Dante Pettis has seen 5 // 3 // 6 targets in his last three games; Deebo Samuel has seen 7 // 4 // 3 // 5 in his last four), they become the most speculative in a game the 49ers should control — with “volume” no guarantee on any of these guys, and with “guessing who sees the volume” the next step if guessing that volume does show up.
The backfield is actually hurt more by the limited pass game roles afforded them (2.0 targets per game for Coleman; 2.4 for Breida) than they are by the split workload, as this team wants to run the ball, and — in a game they should control, vs a team that is below-average at all levels of the defense — each of Breida and Coleman should be able to clear 15 touches. Breida is the better all-around player (and the better bet for an explosive gain), but the 49ers remain extremely hesitant to use him close to the goal line, with only one touch inside the 10 this year (to seven for Coleman and eight for Jeff Wilson when Coleman was out). Coleman is the better bet for a score.
While there is risk that the 49ers just blow the doors off the Redskins and don’t pass enough for Kittle to matter, Kittle’s slow game against the Bengals earlier this year (three targets) was more about the way the Bengals defense tilts toward a top aerial weapon than about the blowout, as Kittle saw 10 targets in Week 1 with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing only 27 times (compared to 25 vs Cincy), and he saw eight targets on 29 Jimmy attempts vs the Browns. The 49ers should “play” long enough in this one even if they take a big lead for Kittle to see his typical range of looks in a matchup that sets up well.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This is a bit of an interesting spot, in that the likely lack of competitiveness in this game will make it difficult for anyone on the spread-it-out 49ers to post a truly big score — and yet, it also seems likely that the 49ers backfield will go overlooked, while Kittle may go a bit under-owned given blowout concerns. The one-dimensional nature of the 49ers’ backfield production and the fact that a spiked-target week from Kittle is highly unlikely will probably be enough for none of these pieces to be central to my builds this week; but I do like the idea in tourneys (especially larger-field contests) of committing a bit of action to the 49ers backfield to chase either a couple big plays from Breida or a multi-touchdown game from Coleman, and I also would feel comfortable in Kittle’s target floor, which gives him plenty of space for a big day even without a target spike.
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