Jamaal Charles won’t need to introduce himself to the 49ers Sunday afternoon. They’ve been watching the Chiefs running back all week on film.
When the 2-2 Niners host 2-2 Kansas City at Levi’s Stadium (1:25 p.m. kickoff), one of the biggest factors in the outcome will be how Mr. Charles does against San Francisco’s rushing defense.
In a 41-14 victory over the New England Patriots in Week 4, Charles averaged 5.1 yards per carry, gaining 92 yards and scoring the first touchdown of the game on a 2-yard burst. Charles is the Chiefs’ established star in his seventh season, and in his last game against the 49ers in 2010, he had 97 yards on the ground.
But now he has an explosive partner, second-year running back Knile Davis. Davis rushed for 107 yards against New England and actually leads K.C. in rushing this season with 321 yards. He’ll be going for his third straight 100-yard rushing game.
Like the 49ers, Kansas City is a run-first team in a pass-first league. The Chiefs run the ball on 47.4 percent of their plays and they’ve averaged 145 yards rushing per game.
But on Sunday, the Chiefs will be running the ball against the league’s No. 2 defense against the run. San Francisco gave up just 22 yards against the Eagles last week, and the 49ers have improved in that department every week since being gashed by the Cowboys in Week 1.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson told reporters in Kansas City this week that his team will continue to commit to the run, but they all know it’s going to be hard.
“I mean, they’re really good against the run,” he said. He especially singled out 49ers defensive end Justin Smith, who’s having perhaps his best season since 2011.
Smith, completely healthy this season, has been consistently getting penetration into the backfield and pushing back blockers. In four games he leads the 49ers in sacks with three and has 13 tackles.
“You have to account for him,” Pederson said. “You have to put four hands on him and you have to somehow slow him down. He’s going to get his plays and we have to understand where he’s aligning and keep four hands on him.”
The key for San Francisco, however, might be the play of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite. Both were exceptional vs. Philadelphia.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh specifically singled out those two as big factors in last week’s win.
“Playing good together,” he said. “Playing good team defense.”
Most of the attention in this game of course will be on the quarterbacks. Alex Smith is making a homecoming of sorts, facing his former team. And Colin Kaepernick – the man who took Smith’s job – will be trying to keep the momentum going from a solid effort last week against the Eagles.
This will be Kansas City’s first game as a visiting team against the 49ers since 2002. Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 7½-point favorites.