By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
After securing their second win of the season against the Oakland Raiders last Thursday, the 49ers will be back in action in prime time as they take on the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.
Riding the hot hand of quarterback Nick Mullens — who spent all of last season on the practice squad — San Francisco will look to achieve back-to-back wins for the first time of the 2018 season.
Along with that, here are four things to watch for when the 49ers matchup against the Giants on Monday.
Mullens gets the nod for the second week in a row.
Nick Mullens held back tears as he walked off of the field last Thursday.
After getting the start against Oakland over an injured-but-available C.J. Beathard, Mullens stole the show by passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns to earn a passer rating of 151.9 — first among 13 NFL QBs with at least 15 attempts and 250 yards in their first career game since the merger.
Thanks to the impressive showing, Mullens will get the start for the second week in a row, surpassing C.J. Beathard on the depth chart, who was inactive against the Raiders due to a hand injury sustained against the Cardinals in Week 9.
“Just the way he played. I think the way, everyone saw he played, I don’t think it was too tough of a decision,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Our team played really well and he played well. It was going to be hard to not give him the opportunity.”
Completing 16 of his 22 attempted passes, Mullens undoubtedly turned heads on Thursday, while gaining the confidence and respect from his teammates inside of the 49ers locker room.
While the players showed unwavering support of Beathard after starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s season was cut short due to a torn ACL, the emergence of Mullens has shifted their focus to the 23-year-old’s poise.
“Nick was fantastic in the huddle,” said 49ers tight end George Kittle. “He came in that first drive and it seemed like he had been in there the whole time. And that’s all on him, the preparation he’s done, howe he’s been ready for it. It was literally like he’s been in there the whole season.”
Kittle looking to continue a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Through the first nine games of the regular season, Kittle has been, by far, the 49ers’ most productive and consistent pass-catcher.
With 692 yards on 41 receptions, Kittle ranks second among all NFL tight ends this season, and is projected to become the first San Francisco tight end to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving.
“We still have seven weeks left, so we have time,” Kittle said, when presented with the idea of receiving a Pro Bowl selection. “People tag you and stuff but it’s easier if you just don’t think about it.”
Speaking of tags, Kittle has received some notoriety over the last week via social media after putting up his second 100-yard game of season in Week 9 against Oakland. The highlight play of the night came on a 71-yard catch-and-run after snagging a ball with one hand while his eyes were closed.
“So far, the coolest thing is that [Chiefs tight end] Travis Kelce followed me on Twitter,” Kittle said. “I’ve been following him for three years and I got a follow back. That was pretty cool.”
What would be even cooler for Kittle is if his breakout season can continue against the Giants on Monday. The Giants defense currently ranks 16th in the league against the pass, giving up 244 yards per game through the air.
If Kittle can continue his dominance against New York, the chances of a Pro Bowl nod will grow that much larger and the second-year tight end could gain a few more followers on Twitter.
The Saquon test
The 49ers haven’t fared very well against the rush this season. Through nine games, San Francisco ranks 18th in the league stopping the run, giving up 925 total yards on the ground.
While they were able to hold the NFL’s leading rusher — Rams running back Todd Gurley — to only 63 yards in Week 7, their next benchmark test this season will be that of containing rookie sensation Saquon Barkley, who poses a threat in both the rushing and passing game.
“God, he is dynamic,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “For his size, it’s very deceptive because it doesn’t look like he is moving, but the son of a gun is moving.”
Barkley, who rushed for 1,271 yards as a junior at Penn State before being drafted second overall this April, Barkley has rushed for 516 yards on 111 carries through his first eight NFL games, ranking 12th among all NFL rushers this season. To go along with his ground-game, Barkley also sits as the second-most productive running back catching the ball, with 497 yards on 58 receptions this season.
“He creates holes,” Saleh said. “I don’t want to put him in [former Detroit Lions RB] Barry Sanders’s world yet, he’s got a chance, but he just has a knack. He’s got great patience. He finds holes. He makes people miss.”
Ironically enough, for the 49ers, missed tackles have been their Achilles heel this season. In one game alone this season — against the Chiefs in Week 3 — San Francisco missed 17 tackles.
While the 49ers coaching staff has made wrapping up and finishing tackles a point of emphasis since, there is a chance they could regress to old habits with Barkley in town.
Wildfires taking a toll on the team
The smoke from the wildfires raging in Butte County can be seen in the air around the Bay Area.
The air conditions have gotten so bad that the 49ers have been forced to change their practice schedule in order to prevent players, coaches and training staff members from getting sick, according to Shanahan.
“We cut about half of our walk through out, a number of plays out,” he said. “We were afraid the air quality was going to get worse as the day went, so we cut out some of our individual time, routes on air, things like that and just tried to get to the plays.”
According to the 49ers, there is also a possibility that Monday’s game could be postponed if the air quality does not improve. While the NFL has not made any moves to do so, San Francisco says they are prepared for the potential adjustment.
“I know it’s a possibility because I definitely understand what’s going on,” Shanahan said. “Just hearing about it the last two days and last night.”
Starting on Thursday morning, the fires have already burned through over 100,000 acres and killed nine people, according to ABC 7 News.
“You know how bad it is, then you see it and it’s unbelievable,” Shanahan said. “It’s affected a ton of people on our team, I know everyone through California. Obviously our prayers go out to all those people because that is probably the most important thing going on in our country right now.”
Bonus: Injuries and Match-Ups
Reuben Foster will miss Monday’s game with a hamstring issue, not his troublesome shoulder. Safety Jaquiski Tartt and wide receiver Pierre Garcon will also miss. With Garcon out, Kendrick Bourne will take over, and will likely serve as a red-zone target. With Garcon out, expect Marquise Goodwin and Kyle Juszczyk to also receive more targets.
Keep an eye on the left side of the field when the 49ers are on defense. Richard Sherman has not allowed a touchdown all year, and is rated as the best cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. While San Francisco doesn’t flip corners to get favorable matchups, if Sherman is lined up against Odell Beckham Jr., it could be a heck of a show, especially if the Giants get down early, and have to throw the ball.
Defensive end Cassius Marsh — who had 2.5 sacks against the Raiders last week — will likely be matched up against New York tackle Chad Wheeler. Wheeler is ranked the No. 75 tackle in the NFL this year by Pro Football Focus, and has graded out at a 42.4 on a 0-100 scale.
Sports Editor Ryan Gorcey contributed to this report.