NFL Preview - Jacksonville (6-4) at San Francisco (4-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker asked Terrell Owens for his game-used jersey following last Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills. It was an honorable gesture by Sims-Walker, who hopes to one day be as dominant at this level as the enigmatic Owens has been for the past decade.
The young Sims-Walker has reeled in a touchdown catch in every contest during Jacksonville's current three-game winning streak, and will try for an encore performance this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, a place where another one of Sims-Walker's idols played.
Jerry Rice shattered NFL records during his tenure with the 49ers, and Sims- Walker is trying to do the same when his career eventually comes to a close. But now the budding star of the 6-4 Jaguars will take it one day at a time and try to keep his team's hopes for an AFC Wild Card berth alive in this inter- conference matchup.
Sims-Walker is enjoying a career year, having amassed 47 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns, and is arguably the most complete receiver the Jaguars have had since Jimmy Smith. Not to take anything away from Reggie Williams, Ernest Wilford or Matt Jones, but Sims-Walker has built a strong rapport with David Garrard. The Jacksonville quarterback has completed 17 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns to Sims-Walker over the team's three most recent games, and his three-yard touchdown pass to the UCF product with 56 seconds remaining last week proved to be the difference in an 18-15 home victory over the Bills.
Garrard threw for 215 yards and was also picked off trying to make up for a rare pedestrian showing by Maurice Jones-Drew. The star running back found the end zone against the Bills, but was held to 66 yards on 25 carries. It was his lowest output since rushing for 34 yards in a 41-0 loss at Seattle in Week 5. Jones-Drew will no doubt be used as a wrecking ball this week in San Francisco, and should be since he's posted 13 touchdowns this season and at least one in each of the past five weeks, scoring eight times in that stretch.
After Sunday's game, the Jaguars will open a three-game homestand versus the Texans, Dolphins and Colts. The last time Jacksonville won four straight games was from September 16 - October 14, 2007.
Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder was searching for his lost love in the track "Last Kiss", which is similar to what 49ers head coach Mike Singletary is feeling after his team has failed to build off a 3-1 start to the season. That hot beginning is now history and the 49ers have lost five of their last six games, including a tough 30-24 defeat at Green Bay's legendary Lambeau Field over last weekend.
San Francisco nearly battled back from a 23-3 deficit only to fall further behind in the NFC West standings, where Arizona sits comfortably ahead with a 7-3 mark.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith fired three touchdown passes in the second half to finish 16-of-33 for 227 yards with an interception. Despite almost rallying the Niners to a win, Smith has been turnover-prone, with an interception in all five games he's played for a total of seven on the season.
Smith is not the only problem in San Francisco, as the defense has regressed the last month or so, having allowed an average of 26 points a game over the past six contests.
Luckily for the 49ers, Jacksonville is not known for scoring points through the air and will try to establish the ground game early with Jones-Drew. San Francisco had a tough time containing Packers running back Ryan Grant, who compiled 129 yards and a touchdown last Sunday, but is sixth overall in run defense, holding opposing backfields to 94.7 rushing yards per game.
While Jags head coach Jack Del Rio hopes Jones-Drew can set the tone early, Singletary has a workhorse back of his own in Frank Gore. The San Francisco star had scored in three straight games and posted at least 83 yards on the ground in that span, but was held to 59 yards on seven carries by the Packers -- his lowest total since running the ball once for four yards before getting injured at Minnesota in Week 3.
The Jaguars have won their only two meetings with the 49ers all-time, beating San Francisco at home in 1999 (41-3) and 2005 (10-9).
Jacksonville is the only current NFL franchise that San Francisco has never defeated.
Del Rio is 1-0 against the 49ers as a head coach, while Singletary will be meeting both Del Rio and the Jaguars for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville has needed late heroics from Garrard in each of the past two weeks in order to stretch its unbeaten streak to three games. Garrard (2,303 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) orchestrated a 68-yard scoring drive last week against the Bills, as he fired a three-yard touchdown pass to Sims-Walker (47 receptions, 694 yards, 6 TD) in the waning seconds of the contest. The athletic quarterback completed 21 of his 30 pass attempts for 215 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was also sacked twice for the Jags, who are tied with two other teams for the lead in the AFC Wild Card playoff race after an 0-2 start. Garrard completed eight of nine passes for 113 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 155.8 in the fourth quarter on Sunday. The Jaguars, who are tied with the Steelers and Broncos at 6-4, have been pleasantly surprised with what Sims-Walker has been able to do as the go-to guy. Jacksonville, which is 17th in passing offense this season, is still looking for the first touchdown from offseason pickup Torry Holt, who is second on the team with 38 catches. Jones-Drew is third with 36 catches for 238 yards out of the backfield.
The Niners battled back from a huge hole last Sunday, but still allowed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to throw for 344 yards and two touchdowns. They were able to regroup in the second half and could have used a few interceptions to make it more interesting. Instead, the defense posted just two sacks on Rodgers and three passes defensed. Safety Michael Lewis (54 tackles, 1 INT) led the team with 11 stops, while free safety Dashon Goldson (64 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) ended with nine tackles. The Jaguars don't have nearly as much talent in the passing game as Green Bay, but they will try their best to plug away at San Francisco's struggling pass defense, which is rated 30th in the NFL. Green Bay outgained the 49ers, 484-284, thanks to a strong first-half performance that gave the Packers a 23-3 halftime lead. The main duties of cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer (37 tackles, 1 INT) and Tarell Brown (19 tackles, 1 INT) will be to slow down Sims-Walker at the line of scrimmage and watch for Jones-Drew out of the backfield.
Jones-Drew (926 rushing yards, 13 TD) leads the league with 13 touchdowns and will try to reach the end zone for a sixth consecutive game on Sunday. He is the focal point of the Jags' offense and has scored in all but two games this season. Jones-Drew is currently second in the AFC with 926 rushing yards and sixth in the NFL with 92.6 yards per game on the ground. The stocky back is aiming for his first 1,000-yard season and is three carries shy of matching a career-high of 197 established in 2008. Jones-Drew may be without guard Maurice Williams, who is listed as questionable against the 49ers due to an illness. Either way, Jones-Drew and the Jacksonville front line could have their troubles against the 'Niners' 3-4 scheme. Sunday's showdown will pit one of the top backs in the league in Jones-Drew going head-to-head with San Francisco star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who hopes to spoil any plans of Jones-Drew reaching a milestone mark in rushing.
Garrard has been sacked 22 times this season, including eight in the last four contests. 49ers linebackers Manny Lawson (46 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Parys Haralson (23 tackles, 2 sacks) each had one last week against a patchwork Green Bay offensive line that should have been victimized for at least four sacks. Singletary should be disappointed in his team's inability to pressure Rodgers, whose first-half success was due to great protection up front. Leading tackler Willis (96 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT) was limited to eight stops last Sunday, but will be focused in on Jones-Drew much of the afternoon. The 49ers are sixth against the rush this season, but are 22nd in total yards allowed. The team's 3-4 scheme must earn the advantage up front with ends Justin Smith (35 tackles, 1 sack) and Isaac Sopoaga (19 tackles, 1sack). Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (26 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) will provide the push in the middle and hopes to open space for the linebackers to make plays.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Alex Smith (1,035 passing yards, 9 TD, 7 INT) has started the last four games since taking over for Shaun Hill at halftime of a loss at Houston back on October 25. He recorded three touchdown passes last week for the first time since he shredded the Texans for three passing scores, but has yet to master the 49ers' spread attack. San Francisco's offense has fallen fast after the team's 3-1 start, but should catch a break against a less-than-stellar Jacksonville secondary on Sunday. Smith continued his rapport with tight end Vernon Davis (51 receptions, 8 TD), who went over the 100-yard receiving mark for the second time in three weeks against the Pack. Davis ended with 108 yards and a touchdown and pushed his career-high touchdown tally to eight. Davis has reached the end zone five times in the last five weeks, while rookie Michael Crabtree (22 receptions, 1 TD) scored for the first time in his career. Gore can also hurt defenses out of the backfield and hauled in three passes for nine yards and a score on Sunday. Gore is second behind Davis on the team in catches. Promising young receiver Josh Morgan (24 receptions, 1 TD) had just one reception for five yards Sunday after taking over for veteran wideout Isaac Bruce (21 receptions).
The Jaguars had a fun day watching the back of Owens' jersey on Sunday, but the veteran wideout wasn't able to lift Buffalo to victory despite producing 197 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. Owens burned the Jags for a team-record 98-yard touchdown reception and got the best of Tyron Brackenridge (12 tackles), who was starting in place of Pro Bowl cornerback Rashean Mathis. Mathis (26 tackles, 3 INT) is hampered with a groin injury and is expected to miss Sunday's game as well. Brackenridge will need some help up top from safety Reggie Nelson (48 tackles) if he's unable to contain Davis, Crabtree or Morgan. The Jags are 25th against the pass this season and have been barely getting by defensively during this recent win streak. Corner Derek Cox (47 tackles, 2 INT) is the club's active leader in interceptions with two. In other teams news, Jacksonville signed third-year defensive back Michael Coe from the New York Giants practice squad to the active roster this week.
Gore (610 rushing yards, 6 TD) is 11th in the NFL with an average of 76.2 rushing yards a game and seventh in the NFC in total rushing yards with 610. He had just 59 yards on seven carries last week because San Francisco trailed big early and was forced to throw from behind. The 49ers outscored the Packers, 21-7, in the second half as Alex Smith threw three touchdown passes. It was a huge difference statistic-wise in the first half, when Green Bay recorded 17 first downs to San Francisco's one. The Packers had 362 yards to 57 from the Niners, which limited Gore's ability to rack up yards. The former Miami-Florida star did have 8.4 yards per touch this past weekend and hopes to record that same average or better against a once-heralded run defense in Jacksonville. Gore may not have guard David Baas for this weekend's tilt, as he's listed as questionable with an ankle problem suffered in the first quarter of last week's loss. Either way, the 49ers need to get the offense going early and it starts with Gore.
Jaguars mammoth defensive tackle John Henderson (24 tackles, 3 sacks) sacked Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick twice last week and leads the squad with three this season. Not primarily known as being a sack artist, the run- stuffing Henderson and fellow tackle Terrance Knighton (27 tackles, 0.5 sacks) hope to have a solid afternoon in containing Gore. The two will be up for the task, but should be cognizant that it won't be an easy one. Young defensive ends Derrick Harvey (30 tackles) and Quentin Groves (19 tackles, 1 INT) must bring the heat on Alex Smith this weekend. The San Francisco quarterback has been no better than shaky in each of his last four starts and has had a target on his back the entire year. Expect the Jags to unleash a blitz-heavy package on Sunday. Hoping to benefit from a push up front are linebackers and leading tacklers Daryl Smith (65 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Justin Durant (61 tackles). Durant is listed as probable for the game despite having a head injury. Clint Ingram (38 tackles, 1 sack) plays the opposite side of Daryl Smith, while Brian Iwuh (19 tackles) could see plenty of action is Durant is unable to go.
Sunday's meeting between the Jaguars and 49ers features two of the top fantasy running backs in Gore and Jones-Drew. While the Jags are a bit weaker against the run than San Francisco, the two running backs will experience trouble gaining decent numbers this weekend. Both offensive lines are somewhat healthy, so it should be interesting to see who comes out on top in points. Neither quarterback is worthy of a start this weekend, but each team has a few passing targets to throw to. Starting with San Francisco, Davis and Crabtree have emerged as a solid 1-2 punch by the Bay. Desperate owners should give Morgan a look too this weekend, while Sims-Walker is the only receiving threat for Garrard. Kickers Josh Scobee and Joe Nedney are worthy starts for Sunday. Each quarterback and defense should be on the bench this week.
Jacksonville hasn't been the same team since its surprising playoff run during the 2007 season, the last time it reached the postseason. But with a 6-4 record in a tough AFC Conference and three straight victories, the Jags still have a pulse in the race for a Wild Card spot. The last time they headed out West was when Seattle posted a 41-0 drubbing on October 11. It's been a different story since then, and Jacksonville is hoping to stretch its winning streak to four games for the first time in more than two years. It will do just that at Candlestick Park against a San Francisco team stricken by close losses in 2009. Four of the 49ers' last six defeats have been by seven or fewer points, and that trend will continue Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately for Singletary, playoff fantasies will be just that this season. The 49ers hope they can finish strong and put the clamps on a franchise-worst streak of six straight losing seasons. That may happen, but reaching the postseason for the first time since the 2002 campaign is unlikely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 23, 49ers 18
11/25 19:30:55 ET