Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Bengals

Taking a look deep inside Saturday night's inter-conference battle between the 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals at Monster Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, injury impact, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the game.

KICKOFF: Saturday, 5:15 Pacific
SITE: Monster Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Grass
RECORDS: 49ers 3-10, 3-8 in NFC, tied for third in NFC West; Bengals 5-8, 4-6 in AFC, third place in AFC North
TV: NFL Network, Bryant Gumbel, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders

SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. 49ers lead 7-3 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason, both Super Bowls. The Bengals have won the last two meetings, 44-30 at Cinergy Field in 1999 and 41-38 at Paul Brown Stadium in 2003. The Bengals are 1-4 in games at San Francisco, having lost four in a row since winning their first visit 21-3 in 1974. In the Bengals' last visit to San Francisco, in 1996, the 49ers won 28-21, and it was the last game for coach Dave Shula, who was fired the next day.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Now that the Bengals have re-instituted some of the straight-ahead running plays that best suit RB Rudi Johnson, the hope is an improved running game will also help QB Carson Palmer clean up his act. Palmer is tied for the NFL lead with 17 INTs, and he must be careful against a pair of solid cover men in 49ers CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris. ... The defensive game plan the 49ers will face won't be any different with third-string QB Shaun Hill making his first NFL start. Opponents haven't respected the passing game no matter who has been under center, and RB Frank Gore will likely again pay the price against a Bengals defense allowing 73.2 rushing yards the past five games. Look for Hill to rely heavily on TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

FAST FACTS: Bengals WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh is four receptions shy of Carl Pickens' franchise record of 100 set in 1996. ... Gore has averaged 140.8 totals yards in his past six December games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 148 -- Points by which the 49ers have been outscored in the first half of games this season, 205-57. 9 -- Combined points the Bengals lost to the 49ers in Super Bowls XVI (26-21, following 1981 season) and XXIII (20-16, following 1988 season).

QUOTES TO NOTE
"They're as disappointed as anybody, there's no question. Their expectations were just like ours were -- just like the fans' were. Believe me, they took some of those expectations from the things I said going into the season. Obviously, the head coach should have some kind of idea. I was wrong." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the mindset of 49ers owners John York and Denise DeBartolo York
"I'd like to see coach (Cam) Cameron win a game -- win some games -- (before) our game." -- Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, when asked about the prospect of playing an 0-15 Miami team in the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at Dolphin Stadium.

49ERS GAME PLAN: With Shaun Hill at quarterback, the 49ers will have to employ a short-passing game that moves Hill out of the pocket and takes advantage of his quick release. Hill's ability to throw the ball down the field is in question. He does not have much of a deep arm, but a broken right index finger makes it even more difficult on him to deliver the intermediate and deep routes. Hill has to do a better job than the other quarterbacks at getting the ball into the hands of TE Vernon Davis early in the game. Davis often is a forgotten man early in games. He is about the only big-play threat in the 49ers' passing game. RB Frank Gore will be a key to the 49ers offense. He is looking to bounce back after a game in which he lost two fumbles. He had just one lost fumble in his first 10 games of the season before getting the ball stripped twice against the Vikings. The 49ers will try to use a variety of looks from their 3-4 defense. Coach Mike Nolan and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky have done a good job of rotating fresh bodies onto the field. The 49ers will often switch to a 4-3 defense. They need to be able to generate some pressure on Bengals QB Carson Palmer. Niners CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris are solid, but they will not be able to stick for long stretches of time with WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh if Palmer can sit in the pocket and have all kinds of time to throw.

BENGALS GAME PLAN: The Bengals could play keep-away from the 49ers; they average just 26:29 in possession time and convert just 23 percent of their third downs offensively, 52 of 177. The Bengals want to control the running game of Frank Gore and force third-string quarterback Shaun Hill, making his first NFL start, to pass. The Bengals should be able to run a balanced offense with Carson Palmer passing and Rudi Johnson running. The Bengals should be able to turn takeaways into points, as well. The 49ers have committed 32 turnovers this season and are minus-13, second worst in the NFL.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- 49ers CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who team up for a solid pair of cover men, vs. Bengals WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who have combined for 175 catches for 2,153 yards and 17 touchdowns.
--- 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who has struggled in pass protection, vs. Bengals RDE Justin Smith, who is having a down season with just two sacks for the season.
--- 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who leads the NFL in tackles, vs. Bengals RB Rudi Johnson, who rushed for 92 yards last week in a disappointed, injury-plagued season. The 49ers' run defense is tied for 25th in the league at 123.5 yards allowed per game. Johnson has run better of late with the improved health of an injured hamstring. He has rushed for a touchdown in each of the past three games and run for 214 yards on 62 attempts in that span. Coach Marvin Lewis said the offense has returned to some more between-the-tackle, straight-ahead runs for Johnson, where Willis is sure to be waiting.
--- 49ers DE Bryant Young, who leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks, vs. Bengals RT Stacy Andrews, who has done a good job of filling in for injured Willie Anderson this season.
--- 49ers QB Shaun Hill, who makes the first start of his NFL career, vs. Bengals pass defense, which ranks 29th in the league in yards passing allowed.
--- Bengals MLB Landon Johnson vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore, who is similar to the Rams' Steven Jackson, whom the Bengals played well last week. Gore is the 49ers' leading rusher and leads with 46 receptions out of the backfield. The Bengals are aiming for a sixth consecutive strong game defensively, and the key, Johnson said, is to stop Gore on the ground and force the 49ers to pass. They are last in pass offense (150.2) and 29th running (85.5). "It's a lot easier to defend the pass when you know it's coming," said Johnson, whose 111 total tackles lead the Cincinnati defense.

INJURY IMPACT
49ERS:
QB Alex Smith was placed on injured reserve and is scheduled to have surgery to repair a separated right shoulder this week. QB Trent Dilfer will miss at least one game after sustaining a concussion last week against the Vikings. As of mid-week, Dilfer was still struggling with the aftereffects of the concussion. WR Arnaz Battle did not start last Sunday and played sparingly due to a right ankle sprain. He is expected to be back in the starting lineup for the 49ers against the Bengals. CB Shawntae Spencer is expected to miss this week's game with a left quadriceps strain that he sustained Nov. 25 against the Cardinals. CB Marcus Hudson will miss at least another game with a knee sprain he sustained Nov. 25 against the Cardinals. RB Frank Gore is likely to get limited practice time, but the 49ers expect him to be available against the Bengals. Gore has been battling a right ankle problem since he sprained it Oct. 21 against the Giants. LB Derek Smith has been bothered by a groin strain. He has continued to play, but his lack of speed has been apparent on several plays. LB Jeff Ulbrich has sprains to both ankles, and his status for Saturday's game is in question. NT Isaac Sopoaga sat out practice in the early part of the week because of a back strain. His availability for Saturday's game is uncertain.
BENGALS: There's not much information on strongside linebacker Rashad Jeanty, who did not practice earlier this week because of a knee injury. He has been a key part of the re-vitalized Bengals defense, especially against the run. Otherwise, the Bengals are healthy.


PERSONNEL NEWS

BENGALS

--- OT Willie Anderson (knee) did not practice Thursday. It is unlikely he would play Saturday night.
--- OT Stacy Andrews will make his eighth start at right tackle, even if Anderson somehow manages to be active.
--- S Madieu Williams (thigh), though he missed the Rams game this past Sunday, is off the injury report and will start against the 49ers.
--- LB Rashad Jeanty, who is a proven run-stopper, returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday with a knee injury. He returned to the starting lineup five games ago, when the Bengals were able to stabilize their defense, and he has played a major role in the turnaround.

49ERS
--- WR Arnaz Battle went through limited practice Thursday and is expected to play against the Bengals with an ankle prain. Battle did not start last week's game, but he saw action and caught a touchdown pass. Battle leads the 49ers with six touchdowns this season, including five receiving.
--- RB Frank Gore saw limited practice on Thursday and is expected to start against the Bengals. Gore has been bothered for nearly two months with a right ankle sprain.
--- DL Bryant Young, who hinted this week that this might be his final NFL season, leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Young is eighth on the team with 57 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss and 33 quarterback pressures.
--- CB Nate Clements is the 49ers' second-leading tackler with 96 stops this season, including eight behind the line of scrimmage. Clements also has three forced fumbles.
--- QB Trent Dilfer said his concussion symptoms are not nearly as severe. He said the concussion he sustained Sunday against the Vikings was the worst of his career. He has been ruled out of Saturday's game. Although his status for the remainder of the season is up in the air, Dilfer said he hopes to play again this season.
--- LB Derek Smith returned to full practice with a groin strain and is expected to start against the Bengals. Smith is fourth on the 49ers with 90 tackles this season. He has started splitting time with Jeff Ulbrich at the inside linebacker position.


INSIDE THE CAMPS

BENGALS

In 2003, his first season as Bengals coach, Marvin Lewis kept T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the roster even though the wide receiver would play in only two games because of a severe hamstring injury. Lewis is glad he did.

In 2004, Houshmandzadeh became a full-time starter. And in the past three-plus seasons, Houshmandzadeh has caught 337 passes and enters the game Saturday night at San Francisco just five receptions from setting the single-season franchise record. He has 96. Carl Pickens had 100 in 1996.

Though no Bengals are leading in fan Pro Bowl voting, with coach and player votes yet to be tabulated, Houshmandzadeh would be the most likely Bengals player to get to Hawaii this season.

"He brings a lot of fire, grit and attitude to the football team," Lewis said of Houshmandzadeh. "He works his tail off every day he can. That's what I like about him. Sometimes we've got to control the rage a little bit. But you know he's got it in him. He's going to fight them to the end."

Houshmandzadeh has 31 of his 32 career touchdown catches since 2004 and 11 this season alone.

"He can get those five in the first half on third down as much as he catches," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "He can get hot and just rattle off three or four passes in a row."

Palmer would not trade him for any receiver in the NFL.

"As big of a role as he plays in this offense -- and has over the last three or four years -- you can't ask him to do much more than he's done," Palmer said.

49ERS
Quarterback Shaun Hill is scheduled to make his first NFL start against the Bengals.

Hill opened the season as the 49ers' No. 3 quarterback but was pressed into service after injuries to starter Alex Smith and backup Trent Dilfer. Smith is out for the season after undergoing right shoulder surgery on Thursday. Dilfer's season is in question after sustaining a concussion last week against the Vikings.

Dilfer said he has suffered concussions previously in his 14-year career but this was his worst. It is uncertain whether he will be available for action in the final three games of the regular season.

Hill is in his sixth NFL season. When he completed 22 of 27 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown last week against the Vikings, it was the first time Hill attempted passes in a regular-season game.

"If you'd told me I was going to be in the league this long, I would've thought I'd play before my sixth year," Hill said. "I'm very excited about playing."

Hill, however, will be playing with a broken and dislocated right index finger. He sustained the injury Nov. 15 at practice when his finger hit a teammates' helmet while throwing.

Hill is still bothered by the injury, but said unconvincingly that it was "100 percent," when asked earlier this week. Smith got into hot water with coach Mike Nolan when he admitted that his shoulder and forearm were injured during a three-game stretch in which Smith tried to return to action after sustaining a separated right shoulder.

"It's getting better and better every day," Hill said.

Hill has a quick release and seems to have a good feel in the pocket. He will likely try to attack the Bengals with throws underneath to his tight ends and backs.



Niners Digest Top Stories