SANTA CLARA – Alumni weekend will bring more than 100 former 49ers, including Eddie DeBartolo, to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday with hopes for a better outcome than last time.
Last October, with the likes of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jim Harbaugh in attendance, the 49ers were pummeled 44-23 by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Levi’s Stadium has hosted only 49ers’ victories since then.
If the 49ers (5-2) can beat the Bengals (3-3), it will be the 12th consecutive home win, including playoffs, which would be their longest such stretch in team history, from Kezar Stadium to Candlestick Park to their 10-year-old home atop a former Great America parking lot.
This current 11-win spree matches those from 1996-97 and 1998-99. Technically, and perhaps more impressively, the 49ers did win 19 consecutive regular-season games between 1996-99, but an NFC Championship Game loss to Green Bay in January 1998 broke that overall string.
OK, enough about victory vibes.
Did we mention the 49ers have lost their last two games (on the road), starting quarterback Brock Purdy just emerged from the NFL’s concussion protocol, and first-year coordinator Steve Wilks is taking heat for a disjointed defense that has only 2 ½ sacks from Nick Bosa, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year?
OK, enough negativity.
“We’ve been in position at the end of the game twice to still win,” wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk said of the back-to-back road losses at Cleveland (19-17) and Minnesota (22-17; Monday night).
The Bengals are coming off their bye, and 3-of-4 wins. They’re also the franchise beaten by the 1981 and ’88 49ers in the Super Bowl. Hence, the timing of 49ers’ alumni weekend. Here are five ways the 49ers can prevail:
1. SMART QUARTERBACK PLAY
Purdy entered the NFL’s concussion protocol after Monday night’s flight home, was limited in practice, but gained full clearance Saturday to make way for his 16th straight start. Now all he has to do is get back to playing efficient, mistake-free football.
The 49ers opened 5-0 without Purdy having a pass intercepted. Then came one giveaway at Cleveland, followed by a pair of interceptions in the final 5 ½ minutes in Minnesota (after Purdy sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit from linebacker Jordan Hicks).
Purdy’s sensational start to his NFL career is often traced to how smart he can read defenses, not to mention how well he can feel pressure in the pocket. Purdy’s decision-making and accuracy — and health — will draw more scrutiny than ever.
If Purdy has a setback or gets hurt, that would cue up Sam Darnold, whose career has been shrouded with concerns about ball security and pocket presence, at least when he languished with the talent-challenged New York Jets (2018-20) and Carolina Panthers (2021-22). His throwing prowess attracted the 49ers to sign him in free agency and bequeath him the No. 2 job, which made Trey Lance expendable in a preseason trade to Dallas.
2. DEFENSIVE UNITY
The 49ers’ defense has issues to fix, beyond Wilks’ Cover-0, all-out blitz that yielded a 60-yard touchdown just before halftime Monday. (Coach Kyle Shanahan condemned the timing of that call. Wilks said: “I wish I could take it back.”)
Monday’s sack total: Zero. “I’m not really pressing right now about the lack of production,” Wilks said, “because I feel like it’s going to come.”
Wilks, however, is still feeling things out and learning – in Week 8 — what makes this “a unique” defensive scheme.
Bosa is taking the heat for not getting more sacks, but he remains the opposition’s focal point. More production is urgently needed from his linemates, whether it comes from interior starters Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead or edge rushers Clelin Ferrell, Randy Gregory and Drake Jackson.
“Our players have shown an ability to be able to do certain things and I got to be able to trust that,” Wilks said.
3. COVER CHASE
After allowing rookie Jordan Addison to catch two touchdown passes, the 49ers’ secondary now faces a stiffer test in Ja’Marr Chase, who is complemented by Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to comprise arguably the NFL’s best trio of wide receivers.
Chase set a single-game franchise record with 15 catches (192 yards, three touchdowns) in an Oct. 8 win at Arizona, where he drew 19 targets. That game is also the only one in which he’s scored. He has 50 catches (550 yards) on 73 targets this season; Joe Burrow has attempted 232 passes.
Cornerback Charvaruis Ward’s scouting report on Chase: “He can do everything. He can line up in the slot, line up outside. Quick game, he’s good. Route running, he’s pretty good. When the ball is in his hands, he turns into a running back. He’s a true No. 1 receiver. I have a lot of respect for him.”
4. HUNDRED CLUB
Christian McCaffrey is a touchdown tycoon. If he scores this game, he’ll match Lenny Moore’s NFL record (1963-64 Baltimore Colts) with a touchdown in 17 consecutive games, including playoffs.
The 49ers need McCaffrey to do more than score. He and the rushing attack must snap out of a three-game funk. McCaffrey has been the NFL’s rushing leader after each of the previous seven weeks. But he’s totaled just 139 yards on 45 carries (3.1-yard average) in the past three games, during which 11 carries failed to gain a yard or lost yardage, and only one of his 45 carries went for longer than eight yards.
“It starts with the run game, with the physicality, violence and motion they can put you in a bind with,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of the 49ers’ offense.
The Vikings stacked the line of scrimmage, and the 49ers couldn’t break anything longer than a 17-yard scramble from Purdy. This game calls for a 30-carry pursuit to control the tempo and play ball-hog away from Burrow.
5. FILLING IN FOR SAMUEL
The 49ers have scored just 17 points in losing each of their past two games. Another common element: they have missed Deebo Samuel’s presence as a playmaker who can physically run through defenders.
Ignoring Aiyuk after halftime Monday night was not a smart strategy, so they should continuously pepper him with passes, as well as McCaffrey (three receptions or fewer in five of seven game).
Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud were Purdy’s late-game targets Monday night. The Bengals’ defense, at least, is not overlooking tight end George Kittle’s capabilities.
“He’s a three-way tight end. He’s tremendous in the pass game, run game and in protection,” Taylor said. “A big part of that (scheme) is what Kittle can bring to the table and his willingness in the run game to be dominant, because he went to Norman High, probably.” (Taylor graduated from Norman High a decade earlier, in 2002.)
Kittle had 151 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches in the 49ers’ last meeting with the Bengals, a 26-23 overtime win in Cincinnati on Dec. 12, 2021. Speaking of history … “I think I saw that last year we lost Week 6 and 7. This year we lost Weeks 6 and 7. Then (in 2022) we went on a 12-game win streak,” Kittle said. “It’s football. Anything can happen. We have the players to dig down and perform.”