SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers have more than just the league’s top-ranked scoring defense to deal with when the Jacksonville Jaguars visit on Sunday.
Quarterback Blake Bortles has been much improved of late, too, for the surprising first-place Jags.
“It seems to me that Blake is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who spent the previous three seasons as the Jaguars’ linebackers coach. “He’s throwing darts, he’s very accurate, he’s mobile, he’s tall in the pocket, he looks lean, he looks in shape. He looks fantastic.”
During the first 11 games, Bortles averaged 204 yards passing and had a 79.5 quarterback rating (27th in the NFL). But in the last three weeks, all home victories, Bortles averaged more than 300 yards and had a 128.6 rating.
Jacksonville can clinch its first division title since 1999 by beating San Francisco.
The 49ers, meanwhile, could win four straight games for the first time since 2013, the last season they made the playoffs.
The wins have come in Jimmy Garoppolo’s first three starts at quarterback. Now he’ll have to face Jacksonville’s elite pass defense. The Jags are No. 1 in sacks, passing yards allowed (169) and opponents’ passer rating.
But with Bortles’ improved play and the return of rookie running back Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville’s offense could be rounding into form, too. Fournette, who leads all rookies in rushing, missed last Sunday’s blowout win over the Houston Texans with a quad injury. He’s expected to play against San Francisco.
“I remember just seeing him in a college. For a guy to be that big and run as well as he can run is unbelievable. Ultimate God-given talent,” linebacker Eli Harold said.
The 49ers have allowed 90 yards rushing or fewer in each of the last four games, but Fournette and the top-rated Jaguars running attack should provide a tough challenge.
“It’s not just because they run the ball over and over again and they have opportunities to run,” Saleh said. “They’re very physical in the run game. They don’t try to trick you, which I respect a lot. You don’t know exactly what they’re going to do run-game wise, but they’ve got conviction in what they are in the run game, and they line up and they try to move the pile on the line of scrimmage.”
There’s some uncertainty surrounding San Francisco’s best run defender. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner missed the first two practices of the week with an ankle injury. Saleh is cautiously optimistic about Buckner’s status for Sunday.
“He’s moving along. Trainers have said that he looks good. So, we’ll see how it goes later on in the week,” he said.