6 Burning Questions Facing the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17

Grant Cohn@@grantcohnFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2015

6 Burning Questions Facing the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    First burning question facing the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17: If they lose, will they fire head coach Jim Tomsula?

    They probably would prefer to keep him. He’s their guy. Firing him after one season would be embarrassing. Plus they have to pay him $10.5 million the next three seasons whether they fire him or not, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco (h/t Niners Nation). Lots of reasons to let him stay.

    But if they lose to the St. Louis Rams this Sunday, the Niners would finish the season winless in their division, which they haven’t done since the 1970s before Bill Walsh became the team’s head coach.

    How bad do things have to get before CEO Jed York fires Tomsula for the good of the franchise?

    These are the burning questions facing the Niners in Week 17.

Can the 49ers Shut Down Todd Gurley?

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Despite missing the first two games of the season, Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley has rushed for 1,107 yards—third-most in the NFL.

    The first time the Niners faced him, Gurley made them look silly. He rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown. No contest.

    But that was in St. Louis. The Niners run defense has played much better this season at home, where it has allowed only 3.3 yards per carry. Week 15, during the Niners’ most recent home game, the defense held Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard to 33 rushing yards on 14 carries. Completely shut him down.

    Can the Niners shut down Gurley on Sunday?

Can the 49ers Shut Down Case Keenum?

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Case Keenum is a 27-year-old career backup quarterback making only his 15th career start in the NFL. His record is 5-9. The Niners should be able to shut him down.

    That being said, Keenum has won three games in a row as the Rams starting quarterback and has posted a passer rating of 91.9 this season. He has played well for a backup.

    The past few weeks, the Niners have struggled against backup quarterbacks. Two weeks ago, Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron posted a passer rating of 115.6 against the Niners. And the week before that, Cleveland Browns backup Johnny Manziel posted a passer rating of 92.1 against the Niners.

    Will Keenum be the next backup to pick apart San Francisco’s pass defense?

Can the 49ers Get the Ball to Bruce Ellington?

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Bruce Ellington was the 49ers’ leading receiver during the preseason. The second-year wideout caught six passes for one touchdown and 115 yards—19.2 yards per catch—and looked like the most electric player on the offense.

    For some reason, Ellington’s preseason success didn’t carry over to the regular season. Through 16 weeks, Ellington has only 12 catches for zero touchdowns and 109 yards. The Niners almost never throw him the ball. What a waste of talent.

    This past Sunday, Niners quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw Ellington four passes—a season high for him—and he made three catches for 55 yards. He was terrific. Will the 49ers increase his workload during the season finale, or will they just forget about him?

Will Vance McDonald Be the Featured Target in the Passing Game?

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The Niners need to figure out who their featured target on offense will be next season.

    Anquan Boldin probably won’t be that guy—he’s 35 years old and will be a free agent after this season. The Niners are a young, rebuilding team. Boldin probably should sign somewhere else.

    Which means the Niners probably shouldn’t call a dozen plays for Boldin this Sunday. The Niners instead should throw the ball to someone who has a future with the franchise.

    Last Sunday, Gabbert threw the ball seven times to tight end Vance McDonald, who finished the game with a team-high 61 receiving yards and a touchdown. Will McDonald be the Niners' leading receiver two games in a row? Is he becoming a featured target?

Will Blaine Gabbert Play Like He Already Won Next Season’s Starting Job?

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    How will Gabbert approach his final start of the season?

    Will he play a safe, conservative game, like he thinks he already won next season’s starting quarterback job? Or will he play aggressively, like he thinks he still needs to earn it?

    In seven starts, Gabbert has posted a passer rating of 86.1, which isn’t bad, considering his predecessor, Colin Kaepernick, posted a rating of 78.5 in eight starts this season.

    But simply outplaying Kaepernick may not be enough to win the starting job. Gabbert has been conservative, having converted only 23.3 percent of the offense’s third downs. It’s like he doesn’t even try to convert them—he just checks down right away.

    If he isn’t more aggressive against the Rams, the Niners may decide to replace him.

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