I watched the first 40 minutes of Saturday’s game very closely while merely glossing over the last quarter and a half, because the third game of the preseason is supposed to be a dress rehearsal of sorts for the starters. With the season starting two weeks from today, the 49ers need to make some drastic adjustments in a relatively short period of time.
But before we get to that, let’s start with some positives. Surprisingly enough, there were several from the 49ers’ 18-12 loss in Denver.
— It’s difficult to express how delighted and surprised I’ve been by NaVorro Bowman’s output through two games. After playing only three snaps the previous week, Ted Robinson was absolutely sure when Bowman handed his helmet to a team attendant after a handful of very good plays that his night was over, but he kept playing and playing right up until halftime.
Watching him race through on untouched blitzes to send a cowering Peyton Manning to the ground (twice) was fun, and his tackle for a loss on that pitch to C.J. Anderson was classic Bowman. He wasn’t perfect — he wasn’t quite as good in coverage as we’re used to seeing — but it’s tough to nitpick when a guy comes back from such a severe knee injury and looks like the best player on the team from the moment he steps back into competitive action.
— I’m not just a member of the Kenneth Acker Fan Club, I ESTABLISHED the Kenneth Acker Fan Club. It’s tough not to see what this kid does in every exhibition game and envision him as a long-term starter. He’s still a little green, as we saw when he flipped the ball in the air after that interception, but c’mon. He’s a kid who hasn’t played in a single regular season game, and he had just intercepted Peyton freaking Manning.
Acker also helped break up that pass to Cody Latimer in the end zone (although Latimer’s effort on the play was subpar), and showed well as a run defender. With Shareece Wright looking pretty mediocre, Tramaine Brock always dealing with an injury of some sort, and Dontae Johnson having some trouble with smaller receivers, I think Acker could be the team’s best corner this year. No, that’s not a joke! Keith Reaser also has some potential, but the 49ers have a real gem in Acker.
— Carlos Hyde is a capable NFL starter at tailback.
— Blaine Gabbert threw a nice ball to Garrett Celek.
— Jarryd Hayne had a nice reception in the second half.
— Reggie Bush is good at recovering Colin Kaepernick’s fumbles, which sadly is a necessary skill on this team.
— Jaquiski Tartt looks like a player. This sounds crazy after Antoine Bethea was probably the team MVP last year, but Tartt and Reid will probably be this team’s starting safeties in 2016.
— The backup kicker, Corey Acosta, looks good. Wait, scratch that. The 49ers released him today.
— This sums it up pretty well:
— The 49ers were in damage control mode after this one, announcing that they hadn’t allowed the quarterbacks to audible, and doing the whole “REMAIN CALM” thing in regard to the offensive line (more on that in a bit).
Instead of charging forward with criticisms of Kaepernick, some stat lines.
- 2-for-6, 17 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
- 2-for-5, 13 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
The second set of numbers is what Kaepernick put up on Saturday night. The first stat line is Alex Smith’s from the third preseason game in 2011, which the 49ers lost 30-7 to the Texans. (Kaepernick was 6-for-16 with 52 yards and an INT in that game, in case you were wondering.)
Smith played pretty well for a season and a half under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and maybe Kaepernick and Geep Chryst will work some magic on Sept. 14 and throughout this season. It’s tough to determine what — if anything — changed with all those sessions with Kurt Warner’s people in Arizona this past offseason, but it’s not like he’s had much time to throw.
I’m going to sound like a broken record, but this is my core belief on Kaepernick … If the 49ers find a way to give him time, nothing matters besides his accuracy. Not his progressions, not how many times he runs, and definitely not his appearance or press conference demeanor. I’ve seen nothing so far in the preseason (5-for-13 for 40 yards, sacked three times for -27 yards) to show that he’s more accurate than before, but judging him based on limited time in these exhibitions, behind this line, is probably unfair.
— That being said, it’d be nice to see at least a little chemistry between Kaepernick and Torrey Smith.
— Kendall Hunter might be done as an NFL running back. He’s gone through two major leg injuries and his main talent — quickness — didn’t seem like it was there on Saturday.
— I gave Trent Baalke the benefit of the doubt on Shareece Wright, but that looks like a bad signing already. He was demoted after the first preseason game, and he’s allowed six receptions on six targets (via Pro Football Focus) during these exhibitions. On a positive note, those catches only went for 44 yards. But Wright always seems to be a little farther away from intended targets than he should. At least they have several promising young corners, headlined by my man Acker.
— A lot of 49ers had their hands on their hips in Denver, perhaps due to the altitude. But it looked like Broncos linemen found it a little too easy to push Arik Armstead around.
— The only outside linebacker who showed flashes of anything above average was Marcus Rush, and there’s a good chance he doesn’t make the 53-man roster. Man, does this team miss Dan Skuta! (I’m just trying to mix things up a bit since Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks get all of the attention.)
— 13 penalties for 113 yards is not exactly a great sign, especially since over half of those came with the starters in the game.
The Right Side of the O-Line
“That will all get cleared up for you this week,” Tomsula said. “That whole thing, we’ll clear it up and we’ll have it for you.”
The 49ers haven’t been afraid to experiment over the last few years. They replaced a very efficient — albeit conservative — quarterback in favor of the athletic dude who runs the pistol. They drafted a defensive lineman and make him a fullback. They signed a discus thrower from England (Lawrence Okoye was released today, by the way). They signed rugby player from Australia. They’ve got a head coach who made his mark with NFL Europe before coming to San Francisco, and his quarterbacks coach was hosting a radio show a year ago.
But what on earth were the 49ers doing throughout training camp with their offensive line? Brandon Thomas was playing with the first team line at left guard. Then he was moved to right guard on the second or third team. Joe Looney is the first team center. Wait, no, now it’s Marcus Martin, with Ian Silberman at right guard. Meanwhile, anyone who either subscribes to PFF or follows the Bills closely could’ve told the 49ers that Erik Pears isn’t the guy you want to lock in as a starting right tackle unless there are no better options.
The 49ers are getting to see all of Pears’ bad points up close, including this:
That’s probably the big change Tomsula referenced after the game. We all figured Alex Boone would be the team’s starting right tackle after Anthony Davis retired/sabbatical’d, and now that’s probably what will happen. Or, maybe Davis is returning! Just kidding, that’s about as likely as Jed York showing up in Salt Lake City on Thursday wearing Michigan gear.
As for the rest of the line, who knows. But there’s a growing feeling, especially with Daniel Kilgore getting moved to the PUP list (which means he’ll miss the first six games, minimum), that it doesn’t really matter. Besides Joe Staley and arguably Boone, none of these guys are anything special yet. That could be due to a league-wide trend that was discussed by Pete Prisco, who asked two retired offensive lineman why line play is so bad right now. It’s an interesting story — mostly they think it’s because the NFL’s free farm system isn’t cooperating, with so many college teams running spread offenses churning out unprepared offensive linemen.
It’s true, the 49ers aren’t alone. Every line in the NFC West looks either mediocre or downright crappy, but the 49ers always depended on their line to be dominant while Seattle has been able to get by with less-than-stellar offensive lines. If the 49ers want to be a run-first offense, they’ve got to be able to show they can pass a little. Unless they secretly think Gabbert is the answer, keeping Kaepernick healthy (with more designed rollouts and checkdowns, perhaps) is paramount.
What all this might mean
Despite the Super Bowl or bust talk, it appears to me that the 49ers are looking toward the future while hoping for a miracle 9-7 season. Maybe they reached out to Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis and were rejected, but no such reports hit Twitter — instead, the 49ers have plenty of cap space ($14 million currently) that they’ll roll into next year. They drafted a total project in the first round in Armstead, who missed a lot of the offseason programs and doesn’t look ready to contribute. They’ve made two trades for picks in 2017 (Andy Lee to Cleveland for a seventh-rounder and Derek Carrier to Washington for a fifth-rounder).
The schedule is brutal. Here’s what they’ve got leading into the bye (Pinnacle’s regular season over/under in parentheses):
- Week 1: Vikings (8.5)
- Week 2: @Steelers (8.5)
- Week 3: @Cardinals (8.5)
- Week 4: Packers (11)
- Week 5: @NY Giants (8.5)
- Week 6: Ravens (9)
- Week 7: Seahawks (11)
The 49ers’ over/under is still 6.5.
If this stretch doesn’t bury the 2015 49ers, they’ll be one of the more intriguing early-season stories in the league. But at this rate, it looks like the 49ers are headed toward a season similar to 2007, when Frank Gore and rookie linebacker Patrick Willis led a team that could run decently (No. 11 in yards per carry) and stop the run (No. 7 in opponents’ yards per carry), but couldn’t do much else.