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3 Keys: How Washington Can Beat The 49ers

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The Washington Football Team defense celebrates during practice on Dec. 11, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

The Washington Football Team will look to extend its winning streak to four games when it goes up against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. (Check out a comprehensive preview of the game, HERE.) Here are three keys to the Week 14 matchup.

1. Win The Turnover Battle

During Friday's press conference, head coach Ron Rivera brought up that his Carolina Panthers teams won about 90% of the games in which they won the turnover battle. That percentage has not been as high in his first season with the Washington Football Team, but it has still been a significant indicator of success.

Washington is 5-2 when it wins the turnover battle, meaning that all five of its victories this season have come when it has recorded more takeaways than giveaways.

Rivera's team should have a great chance of leading in this category against a 49ers team that is tied for the third-most committed turnovers in the NFL (22) and has committed at least two in eight of its 12 games. A big part of that problem has been quarterback Nick Mullens, who has given the ball away 11 times in eight appearances.

Washington, meanwhile, has committed just three turnovers over the last four games (three wins).

"Without a doubt that's the thing that we talk about is protecting the football and trying to get guys to understand how important it is to take it away," Rivera said. "We work at it in practice, we work at it trying to get a strip and we work at it trying to protect it. That's something that we have to continue to do."

2. Stop The Run

Two factors powered San Francisco to the Super Bowl last season: the pass rush and the run game. And for the sake of this section, let's focus on its ground attack. The 49ers ranked second in the league in this category during the regular season (144.1 yards per game), then bulldozed the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship with 285 yards and four touchdowns.

The 49ers have not been nearly as productive in 2020 (109.8 yards per game), but the main reason for that is because injuries have ravaged the position. Leading rusher Raheem Mostert has missed six games, and he admitted after the loss to the Buffalo Bills on Monday night that he is still not 100% since returning from a high ankle sprain in Week 12. Behind him, Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson have missed a combined 12 games with various injuries. In fact, Sunday's game will be just the second time since Week 3 that the 49ers will have their top four running backs healthy.

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is well aware of these issues, but also understands the explosiveness of head coach Kyle Shanahan's creative rushing scheme.

"You have challenges every week, right, and they're different challenges," Del Rio said. "Last week, Ben [Roethlisberger] threw the ball 55 times. I don't see the 49ers being that kind of operation. They're going to come and try and pound you, and they run the ball as well as anybody in the league. ...For us, it's about working hard on your preparation and then going out and playing hard for 60 minutes."

Earlier in the season, a run-heavy attack would have spelled problems for an otherwise solid defense. But Washington has only allowed 50.3 yards per game during its three-game winning streak, by far the best in the league during that stretch. It'll look to continue its dominance Sunday afternoon.

"I think, in all honesty, it's the development over time," Rivera said. "You have to break habits and you have to get them to be more confident in what you're trying to do to get them to do it. It was a little bit of a struggle, to be honest. Some of our guys held onto the old techniques and old styles of play and getting them to understand what we're trying to teach I think was a big part of it."

3. Utilize The RBs Effectively

Rookie workhorse Antonio Gibson will miss Sunday's game with a toe injury, but offensive coordinator Scott Turner said that the attack "won't change much" in his absence.

"Peyton [Barber]'s been a big part of this team," Turner said. "Obviously, you've seen the role that he's played in. He can do more than that. We'll need him more. We'll need J.D. [McKissic]. J.D. has given us a lot, but we'll need him to give us some more. We'll work a combination of those guys."

Rivera talked earlier this season about McKissic being an every-down back if necessary, and while he only has 55 carries this season -- compared to 56 receptions -- he's second among the team's running backs with 4.2 yards per carry.

As for Barber, Rivera expressed "all the confidence" in the fifth-year veteran to handle an expanded workload. He also defended Barber's 2.7 yards per carry, noting that it is not indicative of his overall effectiveness.

"The biggest thing is a guy like that who comes in on short yardage and goal-line situations -- what he's looking for is any opportunity to hit a crease," Rivera said. "If that crease is closed, he's still going to hit it. Whereas in a normal situation where it's 1st-and-10, he may stutter step a little bit to buy a little time for spacing to create. He may press something a little longer, or he may come out of it a little sooner. There is a different style when you're coming in on 3rd-and-1 as opposed to 1st-and-10 out in the middle of the field."

Washington could have trouble moving the ball against the 49ers' ninth-ranked run defense, and if that's the case, expect McKissic to be used more on early downs. In these situations against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the offense traded traditional runs for quick passes to McKissic out of the backfield and underneath. The result was McKissic setting career highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (70), and the offense hanging 20 points on the Steelers in the second half.

"We just need guys to step up," Turner said. "It's no different from any other position when you have injuries. We have good backs. I laugh when I talk about J.D., but Peyton's a guy that I believe in. He knows that. The players and the other coaches in this locker room, they believe in him. He's stepped up and he did some good things for us against a very good defense on Monday night. I expect more of the same going forward."

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