Coming off a dominant victory on the road against the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, the San Francisco 49ers look to continue their surge into Week 8 as they visit Wembley Stadium in London to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the 49ers, everything appears to be falling into place after some of the adversity they endured previously in the season.
San Francisco has reestablished the running game. The defense is playing better. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has gotten back into a groove.
All of those things will carry over nicely against a winless Jaguars team that is ranking close to the bottom in almost every offensive and defensive category.
Despite Jacksonville's woes, the 49ers will not take this game lightly. As such, there are plenty of critical matchups that need to be examined heading forward towards the game.
Running back Frank Gore should continue to build upon his impressive 2013 season. Perhaps Kaepernick can develop a rapport with some additional receivers not named Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis. Can the 49ers' banged-up defensive front look to continue their momentum against a lackluster Jacksonville offensive line?
These elements deserve focus even if the game's outcome is all but guaranteed.
Frank Gore vs. Jacksonville's Run Defense
Seven weeks into the season, Gore has shown almost no sign of slowing down. At 30 years old, Gore is averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 78.1 yards per game. Those numbers fit right in with what Gore has done over his nine-year career.
Considering how much the 49ers rely on their ground attack, Gore should expect more of the same in Week 7. The only question is how effective will Jacksonville be at limiting his gains.
Despite attempts from first-year head coach Gus Bradley—more on him later— to revamp the run defense, this unit has failed miserably to get things on track.
Look for the 49ers to exploit this weakness early and often. Gore should get plenty of carries and Jacksonville does not possess the talent to respect both the run and passing games. Thus, a good start for Gore should open things up for the rest of the offense.
Once a comfortable lead is established, Gore will get some much-needed rest giving chances to backup backs Kendall Hunter and perhaps even LaMichael James.
49ers Getting Nos. 2 and 3 Receivers Involved
By this point, we all know that Boldin and Davis are Kaerpernick's two favorite targets through the air.
Week 7 gives San Francisco a chance to see what it can do with some of the other 49ers receivers. Could Jon Baldwin get some looks and could Kyle Williams have a chance to showcase his speed?
Baldwin has been used minimally up to this point and, aside from special teams, Williams has fared little better.
This game could provide the opportunity for Kaepernick to develop more of a rapport with the other receivers. Like the Jaguars' run defense, Jacksonville is horrible stopping the pass—having allowed a league-high 15 touchdown receptions thus far.
Will Blackmon is the Jaguars' best and most experienced cornerback. He, and rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien, will be tasked with trying to shut down Boldin and Davis. That plays into the 49ers' hands.
Yet the 49ers should look to get players like Baldwin and Williams involved. It will be at minimal risk considering Jacksonville's minus-7 turnover differential.
This facet may play a small role in ensuring a 49er victory in Week 7, but it could pay huge dividends down the road—or at least until San Francisco gets some receiving reinforcements.
San Francisco should at least see what these guys can do. They have the opportunity and need to take it.
49ers Offense vs. Gus Bradley
Last season, when Bradley was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco could do almost nothing on offense when the Seahawks and 49ers squared off.
During their first meeting on October 18, 2012, San Francisco netted only 13 points and a mere 138 yards passing. While they were able to rush for 175 yards in the game, it was clear that Bradley had the capability of limiting the 49ers offense.
When the two teams met again on December 23, the offensive output was almost identical with the exception of more passing yards against less rushing yards. The score and total yards were the same for the 49ers in both games—313 yards and 13 points.
Obviously, Jacksonville is nowhere near the caliber that Seattle was last season. Bradley does not enjoy the luxury of having a loaded Seahawks secondary and will have to make do with the best the Jaguars can offer.
Still, it is worth mentioning that Bradley has an ability to call plays that can thwart the 49ers offense.
Bradley, who will arrive in London after his team in the wake of his father's passing, will be looking forward to coaching against the 49ers. While the talent is not there, Bradley will assuredly be trying to get the most out of his defense. They will want to play hard for him too given the situation and the stage.
Maurice Jones-Drew vs. 49ers Defense
While wide receiver Cecil Shorts has been the leading receiver for Jacksonville through six weeks, it is safe to assume that much of the Jaguars' offensive game plan will rotate around Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
San Francisco's pass defense has played very well in 2013 and the Jaguars have not developed any sort of passing rhythm. Thus, their offense will rely on what Jones-Drew can do on the ground.
This is probably the best-case scenario for Jacksonville. The 49ers run defense has been vulnerable this season—747 yards on the ground so far which ranks them 21st in the league.
Despite some improvements, stopping the run is still San Francisco's primary defensive weakness.
Add that to a number of key injuries to a banged-up line, the 49ers' defensive front is somewhat vulnerable.
If the Jaguars hope to exploit this, two things will have to happen. First, they will need their offensive line to perform better than it has all season long. Second, Jones-Drew will have to retain his role as the primary offensive weapon.
Neither scenario is likely.
The NFL's 2011 rushing leader, who used to be one of the most feared RBs in the NFL, may be regressing worse than the Jaguars' offense. In spite of his foot injury that curtailed his 2012 season, Jones-Drew appears to have lost that explosive step so critical to backs at the NFL level.
Jones-Drew is averaging only 3.1 yards per carry and a mere 45.1 yards per game. He is not getting the blocks like he did back in his 2009-11 Pro Bowl years and even an injury-riddled 49ers defense should be able to thwart Jacksonville's offensive line.
Still, curtailing Jones-Drew will be a critical element for the 49ers defense. It is one thing to state the glaring mismatch, but San Francisco has to put it into practice.
They should be able to do so easily.
Week 7's matchup between the 49ers and Jaguars should be the easiest one to predict in San Francisco's 2013 schedule.
While there are plenty of noteworthy matchups to watch, the 49ers outclass Jacksonville in nearly every facet. There is no reason to expect nothing short of another dominant San Francisco victory.
Yet the game provides multiple opportunities for the 49ers to work some details out before they head into a Week 9 bye. Elements of their defense could be honed as could the passing game. Gore, and other members of the offense, could pad their stats.
Perhaps the most important element will be San Francisco continuing their momentum. Already riding a four-game win streak, the 49ers will look to keep this surge rolling.
They could not have asked for an easier opponent to do so against.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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