Good football teams can stop the run. The San Francisco 49ers are not a good football team.
Four of the five most prolific rushing teams in the NFL (not including the Niners, who rank fifth) have played Jim O’Neil’s defense this season.
But this week, the arguably best football team in Santa Clara will play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3), who are down to their third choice at running back after major injuries to Doug Martin and Charles Sims.
The Bucs rank 29th in rushing yards per game but are coming off a bye week and their best performance of the year, when Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 101 yards against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 10.
But compared to some of the first-rate attacks the 49ers have faced, this is a winnable game if you just take the opponent into account.
Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick kept his list of expectations for Sunday short: “A win,” he said when asked by reporters earlier this week.
“Getting this first win to break this losing streak will be huge for us,” Kaepernick said. “That’s what our focus has to be this week in preparation.”
That’s one of those things that’s much easier to say than do, of course. And it’s going to take a full game of production from Kaepernick to deliver on that aspiration.
He struggled to generate offense with a curtailed playbook in his first start of the season last week against the Buffalo Bills and this week he’ll be without running back Carlos Hyde, who was ruled out on Friday with a shoulder injury.
Tampa Bay has almost as bad of a defense as the Niners, so it’ll come down to which team is able to suck least on that side of the ball.
The playmakers will decide this one and it’s unclear who’s thinner in that aspect. If Torrey Smith — who was limited with a back ailment on Friday — is out or not on the field as much as he could be, Kaepernick’s positive effect on the offense may be limited. And what a shame that would be as he’s just starting to receive the number of targets he deserves as the only accomplished receiver in the corps.
On the other side of the ball, it’ll be 49ers rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson, who’s impressed so far, who could hold a key to this game.
Will Robinson be able to limit Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans if the tall defensive back is able to suit up? Because in Kelly’s tenure with the Niners, you can expect them to score in the high-teens to low-20s, but they’ll need to shut down an offense that isn’t run by Case Keenum if they’re going to get their second win of the season.
It all starts with stopping the run, which has been their problem all season, and if they’re unable to do that today, then they may be beyond repair.