Niners, Bengals stagger into Sunday bloodied and bruised

Injuries mounting as season heads for the home stretch

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

The 49ers have hit a wall. As is the case with many other NFL teams, the Niners are in lousy shape heading into the stretch drive of the season. The injuries are piling up.

Last week in Seattle, San Francisco really missed the dynamic talents of wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel. He will probably not be available for Sunday’s key game at Cincinnati. Coach Kyle Shanahan is going to be very cautious with Samuel. The Niners dearly need this brilliant young player if they want to squeeze into the playoffs. But Samuel suffered a groin muscle injury two weeks ago and likely needs more time to recover.

The Niners’ ground attack was dealt a blow in the opener at Detroit when premier ball carrier Raheem Mostert was knocked out of action for the season with a torn up knee. Elijah Mitchell had been a big surprise filling in as a rookie, but he suffered a tough hit to the head in last Sunday’s loss to Seattle. Mitchell was reporting concussion-like symptoms a day after the game so he’s in concussion protocol and will be sorely missed if he can’t play Sunday.

Meanwhile, running back Jeff Wilson got in for only two plays because of a knee problem last week and another ball carrier, Trey Sermon, is on injured reserve because of an ankle injury. Shanahan was hoping he could plug in special teams gunner Trent Cannon, but Cannon also suffered a concussion against the Seahawks and had to spend Sunday night in a Seattle hospital. The only healthy running back appears to be backup JaMycal Hasty. That means quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will probably have to throw a lot of passes to tight end George Kittle and the talented young wideout Brandon Aiyuk to move the ball.

That is not the way that Shanahan envisioned it. During their recent three-game winning streak, the 49ers relied on a run-heavy game that wore teams down and controlled the clock.

With an aerial attack more likely, the Bengals defense will do everything it can to trap and sack Garoppolo, who is not a mobile quarterback.

But Cincinnati’s defense is vulnerable and it is still smarting after getting shredded for 41 points in an embarrassing home loss to the Chargers.

The Bengals lost linebacker Logan Wilson, one of Cincinnati’s best defensive players, when he had to be carted off the with a shoulder injury after a scary collision last Sunday. Wilson will probably be out for some time.

Meanwhile linebacker Markus Bailey and Bengals’ cornerback Chidobe Awuzie are both questionable. Bailey suffered a shoulder stinger and Awuzie injured his foot.

And finally, the Bengals biggest concern is young quarterback Joe Burrow, who has been the driving force behind the Bengals surprising success this year. Burrow suffered a pinkie finger injury in the loss last Sunday, never a good thing for a quarterback, but he insists he’ll be ready to go against San Francisco.

“It’s just something I am going to have to deal with,” said Burrow. “I am not going to miss any games because of it. Unless it somehow gets worse which I can’t imagine it is going to, I am going to play.”

Cincy head coach Zac Taylor feels confident Burrow will be on the field. Taylor says Burrow has the mentality of a linebacker, a position where you have to relish contact.

“That’s the way he thinks,” said Taylor.

“And that’s kinda how he plays sometimes, and sometimes I gotta hold my breath when he plays that way. That’s just the mentality he has. Being tough and then understanding what toughness is. That can help you as a leader.”

Burrow leads an explosive Bengals attack that has put up an average of nearly 28 points a game, good for fourth best in the NFL. After years of being one of the league’s lesser lights, the Bengals resurgence has stirred plenty of excitement among long-suffering Cincinnati fans, so the 49ers will probably face as hostile environment as they did last week in Seattle.

With just six games remaining and four of those away from Santa Clara, the 49ers 6-6 record means they are still very much in the playoff picture.

The key to this game will probably be the Niners’ defensive unit trying to find a way to put the clamps on Burrow. That will not be an easy task with a depleted 49ers’ secondary and a recent hamstring injury to normally durable linebacker Fred Warner. He was on the sidelines at Seattle because of a pulled hamstring. Warner may play against the Bengals, but it will be very difficult for him to be at full strength.

Football at any level is a brutal sport. Many liken it to boxing. Usually the fighter who stands tallest after the last round is the winner. The 49ers and Bengals will stagger into Sunday’s matchup like a couple of boxers who are looking to tough it out for another round.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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