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49ers' Nick Mullens-George Kittle Duo a Challenge for Buccaneers

The 2-8 San Francisco 49ers are coming to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday with a renewed spring in their collective step thanks to the emergence of new starting quarterback Nick Mullens. The former undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi has opened two games, one a dominant win over the Oakland Raiders and the other a competitive four-point loss to the New York Giants. Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has announced that Mullens will remain the starter for the rest of the season over C.J. Beathard, who had the first crack at replacing the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. The Buccaneers are trying to stop a four-game losing streak that has dropped their record to 3-7, and they are also making a change at quarterback, going back to fourth-year man Jameis Winston after Ryan Fitzpatrick started the last three contests.

Though Mullens has been impressive, the best thing the 49ers do on offense is run the ball. They rank third in the NFL with an average of 133.6 rushing yards per game, and with Matt Breida and his average of 5.6 yards per carry leading the way, the team is seventh in the league with 4.72 yards per carry. San Francisco's defense ranks 10th in the NFL with 344.2 yards allowed per game but, like the Buccaneers they have been largely incapable of taking the ball away, with a league-low five takeaways. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against San Francisco on Sunday:

GAME-WRECKERS

Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.

Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.

1. TE George Kittle. The former fifth-round pick out of Iowa has had a breakout second season, leading the team with 50 receptions for 775 yards and three touchdowns. That's more than twice as many catches as the team's second-leading receiver. A fast and athletic tight end in the mold of a Zach Ertz or a Jordan Reed, Kittle is outstanding in open space, ranking second among all NFL players with 539 yards after the catch.

2. DT DeForest Buckner. Buckner was the 49ers' first-round pick in 2016, and he has added more refined pass-rushing technique to the raw power and size that made him the seventh-overall selection in that draft. Buckner stands 6-7, 300 pounds, and his seemingly-endless wingspan allows him to move and separate from blockers. He leads San Francisco's defense in sacks (6.0), tackles for loss (eight) and quarterback hits (11), and he's also used his long arms to break up a pair of passes.

3. T Joe Staley. The 49ers have run the ball very well, as noted above, even after losing prized free agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon to a knee injury before the season even started. The offensive line obviously deserves a lot of credit for making the rushing attack work with reserves Breida and Raheem Mostert (now on injured reserve), and the anchor and leader of that line is 12th-year left tackle Joe Staley. Staley has been to six of the past seven Pro Bowls and is a three-time second-team Associated Press All-Pro.

4. CB Richard Sherman. The former Seahawk All-Pro may not quite be as dangerous in his eighth year as he was at the height of his run in Seattle, but he's still a threat to make a big play in the passing game. He has yet to pick off a pass in his first year with the 49ers, but he had 32 interceptions in his first seven seasons, including at least two every year. Sherman has also broken up 103 passes in 113 career games, including four this season.

STRENGTHS

The 49ers' defense has been better than average in two of the most critical game situations, ranking 11th in both opponent third-down percentage and opponent red zone touchdown percentage. The offense is scoring about a touchdown more per game since Mullens took over, averaging 28.5 points in his two starts as compared to 21.6 in the previous eight games. Here are some other areas in which the 49ers have done well so far this season:

·     The 49ers have generally not allowed opponents to put together long, sustained drives. San Francisco has only allowed nine drives this season that lasted more than five minutes, which is tied with the Buccaneers for the lowest total in the NFL. Only three of those nine drives resulted in points, which is a league low.

·     Veteran kicker Robbie Gould has given the 49ers a very dependable kicking game. Gould has made 21 of 22 field goal tries, including eight of nine from 40 yards and beyond, and 19 of 20 extra point attempts. San Francisco is tied for second in the NFL with a 95.5% field goal success rate. Gould is an incredible 70-73 on field goals over the three seasons since he left Chicago.

·     As noted above, the 49ers run the ball very well, and that's particularly true on first down. San Francisco is picking up 5.1 yards per carry on first down this season, which ranks sixth in the league. Not surprisingly, the 49ers also rank sixth in the league in the number of times they have chosen to run the ball on first down (166).

·     The NFL defines a "successful play" as one that gains at least four yards on first down, one that gains at least half of the necessary yards for a first down on second down, and one that converts a third down or scores. The 49ers' defense has allowed opponents to be successful on 45.7% of their plays, which is the fourth-lowest mark in the league.

WEAKNESSES

San Francisco's offensive line gets credit for a robust rushing attack, but it has had problems in pass protection this year, allowing 31 sacks (although, notably, none in the two games since Mullens took over). The 49ers rank 26th in sacks allowed per pass play. San Francisco's defense has intercepted only two passes, none by its cornerbacks. In addition:

·     As noted above, the 49ers have forced a league-low five turnovers, one fewer than the Buccaneers. It stands to reason, then, that San Francisco's offense would have a low total of points scored off turnovers, and that is indeed the truth. San Fran's five takeaways have produced only 13 points, the lowest total in the league. In contrast, the Bucs have just one more takeaway but 10 more points off of them.

·     The 49ers' offense is 28th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage and has had trouble moving the ball in that part of the field in general. The 49ers are picking up just 2.02 yards per play in the red zone, which is the worst mark in the league. The league average is 2.98.

·     TE George Kittle leads the team in receptions and fullback Kyle Juszczyk is tied for second. The team's listed starters at wide receiver, Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, have combined for 43 receptions. San Francisco is getting just 47.95% of its receiving yards from its wideouts, which is the lowest percentage in the NFL.

·     Opposing passers have had relatively good success when throwing the ball deep on the 49ers' secondary. On passes that travel more than 20 yards in the air, San Francisco is allowing an overall passer rating of 103.0, fourth-worst in the NFL.

NEW FACES IN 2018

Jerick McKinnon was supposed to lead the 49ers rushing attack after signing a lucrative deal in free agency to leave Minnesota, but he has been on injured reserve since the preseason. However, the 49ers are starting two of their 2018 draft picks.

1. T Mike McGlinchey. The former Notre Dame standout went to the 49ers with the ninth overall pick this past April and he has stepped right in at right tackle, starting all 10 games for a line that has excelled in run blocking.

2. LB Fred Warner. Warner was the first of the team's two third-round picks, and the BYU product has also started all 10 games, filling the middle linebacker spot between Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith. Warner leads the team with 76 tackles, more than twice any other player on the 49ers' defense.

3. C Weston Richburg. The 49ers' offensive line has a new center in 2018, as they signed the former New York Giants in the early hours of free agency. Richburg started 50 games in four years with the Giants and has opened all nine outings in which he's played this year.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo. This is the big one, of course. After coming over from New England in a trade and winning all five of his starts to close out 2017, Garoppolo got a lucrative new deal this offseason and was expected to keep the franchise on the rise. Unfortunately, he tore an ACL on a non-contact play near the end of a scramble in Game Three and was done for the season.

2. WR Pierre Garcon. The team's leading pass-catcher among wideouts, Garcon missed the 49ers' Week 10 game against the Giants due to a knee injury but did have the bye week to recover, so he might be able to return against the Buccaneers.

3. Jerick McKinnon/Raheem Mostert. Mostert was helping to replace McKinnon with 261 rushing yards and 7.7 yards per carry, but then he joined his teammate on injured reserve. Matt Breida has done a fine job carrying the load, however, with Alfred Morris also available to pitch in.

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