Here are five keys to the game heading into Sunday's Week 4 clash between the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers.
1. Rattle Beathard Early – A major storyline entering Sunday is C.J. Beathard taking over at quarterback for the away team for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. The Bolts made it clear they have the utmost respect for Beathard, who they said is extremely dangerous with his legs coupled with his ability to make all the throws. Still, he is being thrust into the spotlight, so it's worth watching how he performs early during the game. Will the Bolts be able to apply pressure and rattle him early, or will Beathard march his offense up and down the field, setting the tone and giving him confidence right off the bat? Desmond King and the Chargers hope it's the former since they are well aware of his talents:
"(He's) a phenomenal athlete. He's very competitive on and off the field. He's going to give his 110 percent, and I feel like watching film on him, he looks more experienced this year for sure from last year."
2. Bottle Up Breida and Morris – Running back Matt Breida has been one of the brightest surprises in the NFL early this season. The 49ers' ground attack was a major question mark entering Week 1 after prized free agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon suffered a freak season-ending injury a few days before the opener. Any worries have proved to be unfounded as Breida's 274 yards were tied for the most in the league entering Week 4. He's gashed defenses with numerous explosive plays. In fact, his six runs of at least 20 or more yards through three games are more than any other team. However, Breida is no sure thing to suit up as he banged up his knee a week ago and practiced on a limited basis this week. Nonetheless, expect to see a heavy dose of him and/or Alfred Morris, who also popped up on the injury report. Morris has been equally effective this year, especially in clutch situations. Overall, he's carried the ball a team-high 40 times for 153 yards and one touchdown. Now, just like Breida, Morris is also questionable to play due to a knee injury of his own, so San Francisco's running game does have a level of uncertainty heading into Sunday. Nonetheless, with a new quarterback under center and a ground game that's carved up defenses early on this season, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley said it only makes sense to expect the 49ers to consistently pound the rock:
"They're the number two rushing team in the league. They do a little bit by committee — ten carries here, 15 carries for another guy...You focus a lot of your energy on these games this year because you know what they're doing. (Heading into Week 4), they're second in the league in rushing. That's not going to change just because of who their quarterback is. So I think those styles of play will remain the same and they go about it."
3. Get Gordon Going – The 49ers may rank second in the league in yards per carry, but their defense is in for a tough test as well, facing the Chargers' rushing attack ranked third in the league averaging 5.49 yards per tote. Austin Ekeler has a gaudy 8.2 yards per carry average, which is second only to Breida among running backs with at least 20 carries. He's done so by totaling 163 yards on 20 attempts. However, it's been Melvin Gordon who has really spearheaded the ground game. A lot has been said about his impact as a receiver as he's emerged as one of the top pass-catching backs in the league. Still, he's averaging a career-best 4.4 ypc thus far, toting the rock 39 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Head Coach Anthony Lynn is a noted running back guru, making his bones working with some of the top rushers over the last two decades. Here is what he had to say about how and why Gordon has taken his game to new heights year over year:
_"Melvin has always been a good runner. (We're) teaching him the different schemes that we're running, the run reads, the footwork, the aim points, all those little detail things make a difference in what a back sees — and when Melvin is seeing (well), he's really decisive. That's when he's at his best, but he's just improved. He's working on his one-on-ones. He's winning more one-on-ones now than he ever has. His versatility in the passing game has been outstanding. He's growing as a complete running back." _
4. Air it Out – While it's important to get the ground attack going, it's equally imperative to air it out against a 49ers secondary that enters the game with several question marks. Cornerback Richard Sherman has already been ruled out while safety Jaquiski Tartt is doubtful and safety Adrian Colbert is questionable. Still, that may be admittedly a bit of an overstatement since Philip Rivers isn't afraid to test any secondary no matter whether it's full of four Pro Bowlers or several backups. That's because the Bolts have so many weapons at his disposal:
"I think (TE) Virgil (Green) has been a nice addition, done a heck of a job — and getting (TE) Antonio (Gates) back to health. You've seen him contribute to a couple third down conversions last week. Then Mike's coming on again — I don't know who it's going to be each and every week. (WR) Travis (Benjamin) and (WR) Tyrell (Williams) are going to continue to be part of it. Travis has been out the last few weeks, but Tyrell, he had some plays in Buffalo. Those were big plays. It may read four (catches) for 45 (yards), I don't know what his stat line was, but those are big plays in the game, and they affected the defense because they know where these guys are. They know these guys can fly. This guy's big, and he's got a huge range. (WR) Keenan (Allen) can go anywhere all over the field. Ekeler and Melvin are going to catch a combined 100 balls this year, I would imagine. It's exciting as a quarterback and as an offense just to know we can do so many different things. We're not limited personnel-wise to really change it up to mix it up week to week."
5. Protect 17 – This key goes hand in hand with the above since Rivers needs enough time in the pocket in order to attack the secondary. That's no easy feat going against a talented 49ers pass rush, led by DeForest Buckner. The defensive tackle has terrorized opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking fifth in the NFL with 3.5 sacks. He's far from the only top-notch pass rusher the Chargers will have to deal with as Lynn offered effusive praise for San Francisco's entire D-Line:
"They've got three first-round picks just up front. I saw those boys a couple years ago when they were puppies and now they're grown men — and they're playing like it. They're really stingy against the run right now."