Five 49ers to watch in tough matchup vs. Commanders

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ playoff spot has been secured.

The NFC West champions return to action against the Washington Commanders at Levi's Stadium on Saturday in what could be a preview of a first-round playoff game.

San Francisco is riding a seven-game win streak into their matchup against the Commanders, who currently are slotted in the seventh and final playoff spot with a 7-6-1 record.

Here are five 49ers to watch against the Commanders. 

5. RS/WR Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud is finding more and more success as the team’s return man on punts and kickoffs.

He also will have more opportunities on offense as the 49ers look for ways to pick up the slack with Deebo Samuel out for at least one more game due to knee and ankle issues.

McCloud is one of three players in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both punt and kickoff return yardage. On punt returns, only New England’s Marcus Jones has more yardage and a higher average.

McCloud has 13 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown this season, but he came up with a big third-down conversion in the team’s division-clinching win over the Seattle Seahawks last week.

4. S Talanoa Hufanga

Pro Bowl safety Talanoa Hufanga . . .

Yes, that’s right, Pro Bowl safety Talanoa Hufanga will face stiff challenges both in pass coverage and run support against the Commanders.

Washington will want to run the ball, and run the ball a lot, with running backs Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson.

Robinson leads the team with 652 yards and two touchdowns on 159 carries. Gibson has 536 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 144 attempts.

The Commanders do not have a prolific passing game with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback, but there will be a lot of stress on Hufanga to peel off in run defense to cover pass targets at every level.

Hufanga earned his first Pro Bowl in his first season as the starter with 75 tackles, four interceptions, eight passes defended, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

3. C Jake Brendel

It was a given that left tackle Trent Williams would get Pro Bowl recognition.

But what might have been a surprise was the identity of the 49ers’ offensive lineman who was voted as an alternate: Center Jake Brendel.

Brendel has been very solid in his first season as the starter, and the 49ers’ offensive line has exceeded most outside expectations. Brendel has been a key component.

The 49ers average 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, and the club has allowed only 24 sacks on the season.

Brendel will be challenged Saturday against the Commanders’ commanding defensive line. The 49ers’ interior lineman be tested against defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

2. DT Javon Kinlaw

It remains to be seen how much of a role third-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw will have in Saturday’s game.

But that part is kind of irrelevant.

The important part for the 49ers and Kinlaw is that he plays a little, knocks off some rust and uses this game as a stepping stone to get prepared to make a greater impact during the postseason.

Kinlaw is set to play for the first time since Week 3. He experienced knee discomfort that prompted the 49ers to place him on injured reserve.

With Hassan Ridgeway out for the season and Kevin Givens still out with a knee injury, Kinlaw needs to be able to step into the 49ers’ defensive line rotation and start to show the reasons the organization selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

1. QB Brock Purdy

Brock Purdy will make his third start since stepping in for Jimmy Garoppolo after he sustained a fractured foot in the 49ers’ Week 13 game against the Miami Dolphins.

With another game comes another opportunity for the opposition to examine Purdy’s game video and come up with solutions to limit his effectiveness.

That is why this game is so important.

RELATED: Why rookie Davis-Price has not made impact on 49ers' offense

The Commanders are desperate. They need a victory to bolster their playoff hopes. Coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will put together a plan designed to attack Purdy’s perceived weaknesses.

This is the kind of challenge, with Washington’s outstanding defensive line, that Purdy will face in the postseason.

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