All a rookie with hopes of making a 53-man roster can do in the preseason is try to make a play. In the 49ers’ 34-0 loss to the Broncos, Kenneth Acker made three in a five-play span.
Acker, a 6′ 0″ cornerback out of SMU who the 49ers added with the fourth pick in the sixth round, broke up Zac Dysert’s 16-yard pass to Greg Wilson at the front of the end zone. Three plays later, Bennie Fowler caught what would’ve been a one-yard touchdown, but was whistled for offensive pass interference for pushing Acker to the turf. Acker intercepted a pass that bounced off Fowler’s hands on the next play, but Aaron Lynch’s offsides penalty negated the turnover.
“It was real nice to see the ball come back-to-back-to-back and it’s just like … I’m here now,” a smiling Acker said after the game.
Let’s forget about the INT, since it didn’t count and Fowler should’ve caught the short slant throw from Dysert. The PBU was easily the most impressive play, because it looked like Dysert had Wilson on a post route for an easy six points before Acker showed up at the last second.
“I made a nice read and got across the receiver without touching him, so I felt like that was a good play and showed a little bit of athleticism,” Acker said.
“The NFL is looking so hard at DBs with this hands-on stuff now, just being able to listen to the ref tell me to take my hands off (the receiver), and take my hands off at the right time and show him that the contact came from the other side.”
The 49ers secondary got a lot younger this year, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Tarell Brown was the team’s top corner for two-plus seasons, but it’s unclear how his physical style will play with this year’s “point of emphasis.”
Total penalties are up 43.7 percent from last year through the first two weeks of preseason games, according to the league’s figures. There have been 756 penalties so far this preseason, compared to 526 last year through two weeks of preseason games.
Of the 230 additional penalties this year, 134 of them have been attributable to increases in illegal contact and defensive holding calls. There have been 55 illegal contact penalties this preseason, up from eight through two preseason games last year. There have been 107 defensive holding penalties, compared to 20 at this point in the 2013 preseason.
Some have called the uptick in illegal contact and defensive holding flags a response to the “Legion of Boom,” but the rules apply to everybody. If the “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” holds any credence here, this might be the perfect time to add a bunch of young sponges at cornerback, players willing to adapt instead of stubbornly sticking to their preferred coverage tactics.
Each team hosts NFL officials at times during offseason practices, and Acker took advantage.
“You get a little angry being a DB, because we always want to put our hands on the guy. But we’ve got to learn to abide by the rules now. It helped a lot just knowing what they’re actually looking for. So right after the play or after practice you can go and talk to them and go, ‘Where were you looking on that play?'”
That line of communication stays open during games, too.
“They talk to you sometimes, you’ll hear them say “hands, hands.” They’ll make sure and remind you before,” said Acker.
“I try to talk to the refs as much as I can, just to get an understanding of where they’re coming from. So I remember on the play before (the PBU), he tapped me and said something about where my hands were.”
However, it’s one thing to chat with the officials between plays. It’s quite another for a rookie defensive back to see a flag fall near him in the end zone and find out it’s against the receiver he was guarding.
“I was so surprised. I was surprised at first because I looked at the ref immediately in front of me and he didn’t call anything. So I’m looking like, ‘Wait, you’re there. You didn’t see those two hands pushed?’ And then the back ref, I guess he had a better angle towards it. So I saw as I got up I looked and saw the flag and thought, ‘I know it’s not on me,'” he said.
“Just to see actually see the refs would call offensive pass interference makes me feel a lot better.”
A spot on the team would make Acker feel even better, but that won’t be easy. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are locks to start; Perrish Cox and Chris Cook have 76 games of combined NFL experience; Darryl Morris showed well in his rookie season and can play special teams; Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson were drafted before Acker.
Sneaking Acker onto the practice squad may be even more difficult. The 49ers tried to do that with seventh round pick Marcus Cooper last year … he played in 16 games for the Chiefs (six starts).
One last bit on coverage for the football nerds out there — here’s Acker on how to take advantage of that all-important five-yard window before legal jostling for position becomes a five-yard illegal contact penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.
“If you’re thinking about (illegal contact) too much, you’re a second slower taking your hands off. You’re a second slower putting your hands up on the guy, actually. Just being real conscious of it and knowing what’s going on and playing with those other guys who know little techniques to make sure you stay on the good side of the refs is something that I’ve taken from the older guys and something I need to get better at,” said Acker, who doesn’t count his steps to determine whether he’s within five yards of the line of scrimmage while in press coverage.
“Instead of counting, it’s more of a feeling. It’s five yards, so you know if you back up two steps you’re probably right at that mark. If you don’t have control of (the receiver) by then, you might as well keep your hands off.”