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Five things to watch in 49ers vs. Buccaneers matchup

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers (2-8) travel to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7) Sunday morning in what is San Francisco’s third straight game playing a last-place team.

Here are five things to watch.

Which team will buck the trend?

These teams are a combined 5-15 for a reason. Both the 49ers and Bucs have been unable to string together complete performances, though the trajectories of their losses have gone differently.

The 49ers have followed a similar script in the majority of their defeats: start well, hold a lead deep into the second half, and fumble it away when the clock ticks down. They have held six second-half leads in 10 games this year. In two recent losses (Green Bay and New York), the 49ers had the lead in the final two minutes. They are averaging 3.6 points-per-fourth quarter, the second-worst mark in the NFL.

The Bucs, conversely, have been similarly as frustrating in opposite fashion. Their game script typically follows a consistent pattern: trail by multiple scores before launching almost improbable late-game comebacks that fall just short. Three weeks ago, they trailed by 18 points in the third quarter. They lost by three. Last week, they trailed by 17 points in the third quarter and lost by three, despite producing 510 yards of offense.

If history tells us anything, we will see an early 49ers lead and late Bucs comeback. If either can buck their opposite trends, they’re likely to win.

Turnover battle

San Francisco’s struggles in this department help explain it’s frustrating season. The 49ers have a -15 turnover differential on the year, second-worst only behind Tampa Bay’s -23 differential.

In the one game the 49ers won the turnover battle, Week 2 against Detroit, they recorded one of their two wins this season. Last week, they committed two turnovers (both Nick Mullens interceptions) that led to seven points, ultimately the difference in a 27-23 loss to the Giants.

Empty possessions have continually dug a developing defense into holes and forced an undermanned offense to bring the 49ers back.

Tampa Bay has forced just one interception this season. The Bucs have turned the ball over 29 times, which helps explain their precarious quarterback situation, with Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick alternating starting duties.

49ers’ red zone offense

This matchup could help the 49ers’ struggling red zone offense turn things around. They converted four of eight red zone trips into touchdowns in the past two games under Mullens. They have scored touchdowns 46.9 percent of the time in the red zone on the year, which ranks No. 28 in the NFL.

The Bucs, meanwhile, are allowing a touchdown on 88.9 percent of opposing red zone trips, on pace for an all-time bad campaign. Last year, the NFL’s worst unit surrendered touchdowns on 67 percent of red zone trips.

Last week, the Giants converted all four red zone opportunities into touchdowns against the Bucs. Eli Manning completed 17 of 18 passing attempts on the day, flirting with an NFL record. The Bucs may be without linebacker Lavonte David (knee), safety Justin Evans (toe), cornerback M.J. Stewart (foot), and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (knee and shoulder). None of them practiced Thursday.

The 49ers should have plenty of opportunities to finish drives.

Nick Mullens’ first away start

Kyle Shanahan and his players were curious to see how Mullens handled adversity after his first NFL start resulted in a win and near-perfect statistical performance. Mullens threw an interception on his fourth throw of the night in Week 10, his second career start, then threw another pick in the third quarter. Yet he responded each time. Mullens went 27 for 39 with 250 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions, giving the 49ers a chance to win despite the two turnovers.

Sunday provides his first NFL start away from Levi’s Stadium. Tampa Bay is by no means the toughest place to play, but the atmosphere will still challenge Mullens’ ability to communicate and play well under pressure.

Mullens has the chance to become the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards and one touchdown in each of his first three career starts. Mullens has feasted on bad defenses, including Oakland and New York. We will see if he continues to succeed against another bad unit.

Gerald McCoy vs. 49ers interior

For as much as the 49ers offensive line has improved from 2017 to 2018, it has struggled against some of the NFL’s most dominant defensive linemen.

In Week 5, Arizona’s Chandler Jones produced one sack and three tackles for loss. He also batted down a passing attempt on a two-point conversion. He won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award. Two weeks later, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald abused the 49ers for four sacks and six tackles for loss. He, too, won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his performance.

Up next is Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler on pace for another prolific statistical campaign. McCoy has fix sacks, three of which came in the past two weeks, and five tackles for loss on the season. With Pierre-Paul potentially sidelined Sunday, McCoy will draw plenty of attention.

The 49ers interior offensive line, including guards Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person and center Weston Richburg, is tasked with containing McCoy. He will also pose a test for Mullens, who has not played a defensive lineman of McCoy’s caliber in his NFL career.


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