Here’s what stood out to me Thursday.
1. The defense in general. Either it’s phenomenal or the offense is making it seem that way. I can’t tell. The defense recorded six sacks, two pass breakups, two interceptions, and allowed starting quarterback Brian Hoyer to complete only 9 of 19 pass attempts. After practice, a reporter asked wide receiver Pierre Garcon what stands out to him so far about the defense. “Apparently we can’t run the ball or throw the ball against (it), so everything is standing out,” Garcon said. He wasn’t exaggerating. He and the other wide receivers can’t beat man-to-man coverage, the starting quarterback can’t hit open receivers, the starting running back can’t find holes and the offensive line can’t block. This all could change as the offseason progresses, though. The defensive scheme is relatively simple and players have picked it up quickly. The offensive scheme is much more complicated. Maybe the offensive players will do better when they think less on the field.
2. NT Earl Mitchell. Mitchell clearly has been the best run-defender on the line this offseason. Today during a run play, he knocked center Daniel Kilgore on his back and into Brian Hoyer, who also fell on his back. Kilgore cannot block Mitchell.
3. SS Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt covered rookie tight end Cole Hikutini man to man on one a play in the red zone. Hikutini split out wide like a receiver, and Matt Barkley threw a jump ball to Hikutini at the back of the end zone. But Hikutini never made it to the back of the end zone because Tartt jammed him at the line of scrimmage and rode him out of bounds. Great coverage.
4. LB Jimmie Gilbert. The undrafted rookie recorded three of the defense’s six sacks, and at least one of his sacks occurred when he was rushing against John Theus, a fifth-round pick from 2016. Gilbert is light for a pass rusher (he weighs only 230 pounds), but he’s tall, he has long arms and he’s tough to block – tougher than the pass rusher the 49ers drafted this year, Pita Toemaupenu. We’ll see if that changes when the players wear pads and hit each other.
5. QB Matt Barkley. Barkley hasn’t played with the starters yet, so it’s hard to gauge how well he’s performing. But he didn’t make one bad throw today. He was 5-for-8 with two dropped passes and a well-thrown jump ball that fell incomplete — the one to Hikutini who got pushed out of the play. Barkley is a quality quarterback who deserves a shot with the first-stringers if Hoyer continues to struggle.
6. RB Carlos Hyde. Hyde didn’t have any long runs, but he did make it out of the backfield without getting stopped a couple times, which he wasn’t able to do last week. After practice, I asked running backs coach Bobby Turner how Hyde is transitioning to 49ers’ outside-zone scheme. Turner’s praise was measured: “I’m happy with him right now. I’m not saying I’m ready to cut him totally loose and stop coaching him. I’m going to be coaching him all the way up until game time. Obviously, at this point we don’t have a depth chart or anything like that, because we’re coaching everybody the same. But at this point in time, I am happy with Carlos.”
7. RB Joe Williams. Williams scored twice in the red zone. First, he took a handoff from the shotgun and ran up the middle into the end zone. Then, he ran a curl route at the one-yard line and quickly turned upfield into the end zone. “He has the qualities of other players who have worked well in this system,” Turner said. “There’s toughness in him. He’s hungry. He has that speed. He’s got the foot quickness. And when it comes down to it, the mental toughness…I loved what I saw in Joe.”
A reporter asked Turner what other qualities running backs need to have in the 49ers’ system. “A lot of people say you can plug anybody in there,” Turner said. “No, it’s like a marriage. It has got to be a perfect fit. It’s hand in glove. Our responsibility is to find the correct people, and then to teach those guys, and for those guys to run with vision…We want the obvious – guys who have speed, foot quickness, cutting ability. They also have to understand about patience.”
8. RB Matt Breida. The undrafted rookie carried the ball twice and gained more than 10 yards both times. Breida seems to make plays every time we see him. A reporter mentioned this to Bobby Turner, and Turner cut him off. “I’m glad you guys have seen that. Yes, he does. Matt’s speed is obvious to everyone. The bottom line is he breaks them off. He makes plays when he gets the opportunity. That’s why he’s here.”
9. RT Trent Brown. Brown seems slimmer and faster than he’s ever been, although today he gave up a sack to Tank Carradine, who also is in the best shape of his career. I asked offensive line coach John Benton if Brown, the biggest offensive lineman on the team, fits this offense. “At first, I wasn’t sure if he would,” Benton said. “I’ll tell you right now, I’m positively optimistic about Trent. He has gotten in good shape – or, much better shape since we got here when he was way up there weight-wise. He is an outstanding athlete, so I think he does fit the mold. I think he can do it. He’ll just have to keep pushing both his technique – he’ll have to be very efficient with his technique which he’s working on very hard – and continue to stay in prime condition. Those will be the key factors for him. If he can do that, I’m very excited about Trent and what he can do. If a player can do what we want him to do from that athletic standpoint and has the size and power of Trent Brown, now we have something really special.”
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. The offense in general. Vance McDonald dropped a pass. Cole Hikutini dropped a pass. Garcon dropped a pass and then Dontae Johnson intercepted it. Carlos Hyde dropped a pass and then it bounced off NaVorro Bowman’s facemask and Malcolm Smith intercepted it. Hoyer overthrew Jeremy Kerley. Hoyer overthrew Garcon. Hoyer overthrew Blake Bell who had beaten Bowman deep by a step. Hoyer overthrew Marquise Goodwin who leaped and caught the ball but landed out of bounds. Hoyer overthrew DeAndre Smelter who was open in the back of the end zone. And Hoyer overthrew Kyle Juszczyk who was open in the flat. Other than that, the offense was great.
2. DE Arik Armstead. Armstead was the only defensive linemen who couldn’t generate pressure. He played right defensive end both in the base defense and nickel defense, meaning he faced Joe Staley, the best offensive lineman on the team. And Armstead couldn’t move him or get around him. This probably is one reason the 49ers signed veteran pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil most likely will play right defensive end in the nickel defense, while Armstead will play there position in the base. He’s been defending the run well from that spot.
3. QB C.J. Beathard. The rookie third-round pick played against the third-string defense and completed only 4-of-10 passes. Once, he got to play with Marquise Goodwin, a starter, who ran deep and beat a third-string cornerback easily. Beathard heaved the ball as far as he could and still underthrew Goodwin by five yards.
4. Injuries. Rashard Robinson, K’Waun Williams and Ronald Blair sat out practice due to injuries, and Ahmad Brooks suffered an injury to his left leg during team drills. Brooks limped to the sideline and laid on the ground for five minutes until practice ended.