Here are the grades for the 49ers’ 32-31 preseason loss to the Vikings.
QUARTERBACKS: B-plus. Brian Hoyer played very well against a defense that ranked third out of 32 teams last season. He threw a perfect 46-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to a wide open Marquise Goodwin, and threw another perfect touchdown pass over the middle to Carlos Hyde. The throw to Hyde was even more impressive, because Hoyer threw to ball into traffic. He had to move a linebacker with eyes by looking left before throwing back to the right. When he left the game at halftime, his quarterback rating was 143.3. Outstanding. But he missed an opportunity for another long completion to Marquise Goodwin down the sideline. Goodwin beat the cornerback by a step or two – he would have scored a touchdown if Hoyer had thrown the ball out in front of Goodwin and hit him in stride. But Hoyer underthrew the pass, which forced Goodwin to break stride and slow down. Hoyer can’t afford to come up short when the opportunity for a big play presents itself. The Niners aren’t talented enough to overcome those mistakes. Still, he played well overall, and established himself as by far the best quarterback on the team. Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard sailed four or five passes over the heads of receivers. His best throws were screen passes. He is not ready to be a starting quarterback.
RUNNING BACKS: B. Carlos Hyde excelled as a receiver – he caught three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. But he continued to struggle as a runner. He came into the game averaging 2.6 yards per carry, and tonight he averaged 2.7 yards per carry. He consistently is a step late hitting the hole. When he does hit it, he doesn’t make himself skinny enough, so defenders quickly knock him off balance. He’s an easy target. He hasn’t had one long run during the preseason. He may end up splitting carries if he doesn’t improve soon, because his backup, undrafted rookie Matt Breida, played well tonight. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Third-string running back Raheem Mostert played even better. Mostert averaged 6.5 yards per carry and gained 130 all-purpose yards, including an 87-yard touchdown catch-and-run during a screen play. A lot of teams would love to have Mostert right now – the Chiefs come to mind. They just lost their starter for the year. Mostert has played himself onto the 49ers roster. With him, Hyde and Breida looking like locks to make the team, you have to wonder if Joe Williams and Tim Hightower will get cut. Hightower almost certainly will get cut – he didn’t play at all in this game and he’s old. If the Niners cut him, I doubt any other team would sign him. Williams might get cut as well. If he does make the team, he would be the fourth running back, and he wouldn’t suit up for games because he’s non-factor on special teams. For the Niners to keep a fourth running back, he would have to play special teams. Williams could end up on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B-plus. Pierre Garcon was excellent – he caught six passes for 64 yards in the first half. He’s a quality player. Marquise Goodwin may be a quality player as well – he made the nice touchdown catch I described above. But he dropped that underthrown deep pass later in the first half – the ball hit him in the hands. Goodwin should have caught that pass. We’ll see how consistent he’ll be during the regular season. He still has a lot to prove. The last receiver I’ll mention is rookie Trent Taylor. He made a tough catch over the middle of the field as he took a hard shot to his back. He seems to have a bright future.
TIGHT ENDS: C-plus. None of the tight ends caught a pass. Rookie George Kittle should have caught a long pass – he was wide open after running a corner route – but Beathard overthrew him. Kittle also made the key block during Mostert’s 87-yard touchdown. Garrett Celek played with the starters and made a nice block during Hyde’s longest run of the game. Celek probably will make the team. Logan Paulsen could be the odd man out if the Niners keep only three tight ends. He played late in the fourth quarter with the third-stringers, which doesn’t bode well for his future. Vance McDonald started for the third preseason game in a row.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B. The starting offensive line was solid in pass protection – it allowed only one sack. It wasn’t great at run blocking, but it wasn’t bad either. It didn’t allow Vikings defenders to fly into the backfield. Trent Brown was especially good – both in the run game and pass game. He may be an elite offensive tackle. Joe Staley, the other offensive tackle and the best player on the team – left the game early with a knee injury, which didn’t seem serious. We’ll find out more on Monday.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-minus. The starting defensive line was excellent. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Elvis Dumervil each recorded one sack during the first two series of the game. Armstead in particular was an absolute force. When he recorded his sack, he beat two blockers. Collectively, this group held the Vikings top two running backs – Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray – to 23 yards on seven carries. The only player on the D-line who didn’t do much was the rookie – Solomon Thomas. Armstead played ahead of him in the Nickel defense.
LINEBACKERS: A-minus. Reuben Foster may already be the defense’s best player. He recorded eight tackles in just the first half. He looked like Patrick Willis. Foster will be a pro bowler if his shoulder doesn’t fall off and he doesn’t get in trouble like Aldon Smith did. The other inside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, was solid. He recorded four tackles. But he got juked by Latavius Murray after Murray caught a short pass over the middle. That was troubling. And Bowman didn’t play on third down or during the two-minute-drill defense – he went to the bench and Jaquiski Tartt played linebacker. It seems the Niners will use Bowman only on first down and second down during the regular season. Smart.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: D. Eric Reid made a nice hit to stop the Vikings on third down. Other than Reid, this unit was brutal. The Niners defensive backs couldn’t cover anyone. Sam Bradford completed 79 percent of his passes – that’s a joke. It seemed the defensive backs were playing zone coverage a lot of the time and leaving wide receivers wide open. That zone coverage stuff isn’t going to work – offenses will tear it shreds. The Niners have to play more man-to-man coverage. Give the young corners a chance to show they can cover man to man. Rashard Robinson made a nice play in man coverage when he broke up a deep pass down the sideline. He played well. Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not. He was bad. He couldn’t cover or tackle.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D. This group gave up a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second half. On the positive side, backup kicker Nick Rose made a 55-yard field goal. I’m not starter Robbie Gould could have made that kick.
COACHES: A-minus. Kyle Shanahan was magnificent. He figured out a way to eliminate the penalties – the starters committed only two. And he created a terrific game plan. He got the ball into the hands of five different players during the first two drives – something Bill Walsh always used to do. The deep touchdown play-action pass with the fake reverse to Garcon was just beautiful. And the short throw to fullback Kyle Juszczyk where Shanahan moved the pocket and made Hoyer roll to his left – that was a great way to keep the defensive line off balance. Scheme will not be an issue for the 49ers offense this season. But, scheme could be an issue for the defense, or at least the pass defense. As I mentioned above, that soft zone coverage won’t cut it. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has to try something else.