49ers preseason opener — what to watch

This is my Wednesday column previewing the 49ers’ preseason opener.

The 49ers play their first game of the exhibition season Thursday evening in Baltimore. This game won’t reveal much about the starters – they will play only a series or two. This game will reveal things about the backups and the coaches. Here’s what you should be looking for.

OFFENSE

Look at the big picture: formation changes, new concepts in the passing game and creative utilization of the players. All offseason, the 49ers coaches have said that they’ve made changes to the offense. They say they’ve “streamlined” it, made it simpler. Some of these changes were apparent in training camp – read-option plays from the shotgun instead of the pistol, an increased emphasis on passing to running backs and the creation of a wide receiver/running back hybrid (more on that later). Will the 49ers show these things on Thursday? They have to show something.

Make sure you watch how the 49ers use the following four backups:

1. Bruce Ellington. He’s the wide receiver/running back hybrid. The 49ers drafted him in the fourth round this offseason. He’s 5-foot-9, but he’s 200 pounds and built like a running back. He has been the primary outlet for Greg Roman’s creativity this offseason. The 49ers line up Ellington in the slot, outside and even in the backfield. Think Randall Cobb, the Packers’ wide receiver/running back combo. That’s how the Niners have been using Ellington. Ellington missed the first four practices of training camp with an injury, but has made 25 catches during team drills the past seven practices. To put those stats in perspective, Stevie Johnson has made just 20 catches during team drills in all 11 camp practices. Look for Ellington to become the 49ers’ secret weapon on offense if he carries over his practice performance to the preseason games.

2. Carlos Hyde. Watch him catch passes. He’s a natural. The rookie running back has caught 18 passes during team drills. Bruce Miller, the 49ers’ starting fullback and third-leading receiver last season, has caught just 11 passes in camp. If Greg Roman starts calling more pass plays for running backs, he’s going to call them for Hyde. But Hyde’s biggest impact won’t come in the passing game. Watch how he runs. Is he faster than Frank Gore? Can Hyde threaten the outside, or is he strictly an inside runner like Gore? Hyde probably can’t make many NFL defenders miss, but can he run them over and push a pile?

3. Vance McDonald. This tight end has been targeted 48 times during camp team drills. Only Anquan Boldin has been targeted more times than McDonald. The 49ers drafted McDonald in the second round last year and seem set on making him a key member of the passing game. The problem is McDonald has dropped 15 passes in camp. That has to be a training-camp record. And even when he catches the ball, he tends to double-catch it, meaning he bobbles it and then traps it against his body. That won’t cut it. Can he improve his hands during the preseason? If not, he probably will disappear from the passing game.

4. Stevie Johnson. Tied for 10th in catches during camp team drills. Here are a few 49ers who have made more catches in camp than Johnson: Quinton Patton (37 catches), David Reed (32), Chuck Jacobs (28), and Jewel Hampton (22). Hampton is the third-string running back – it’s mind-boggling that he has caught more passes in camp than Johnson, a three-time 1,000-yard receiver. Jacobs was undrafted and has completely outperformed Johnson so far. Who saw that coming? Of course, it won’t matter how many passes Johnson caught in camp if he makes a bunch of catches during the preseason. But if Johnson doesn’t make a bunch of catches, will he be in danger of getting cut? You have to wonder if the 49ers’ coaches have a plan for him the way they seem to have plans for Ellington, Hyde and McDonald.

DEFENSE & SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s natural to focus on the rookies during a preseason game. They’re the new guys. But you should focus on the second-year defensive players and the red-shirts from last year. Five of those guys could play significant roles this year if they stand out during the preseason. They will play most of the first half on Thursday. They are:

1. Tank Carradine. He has been unblockable at times during camp. He was a defensive end at Florida State, a pass-rushing specialist. He tore his ACL in 2012, the 49ers drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft and he spent that year rehabbing and adding muscle. Now, he’s a 290-pound pass-rushing defensive tackle, like Justin Smith. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recently said he can’t feel comfortable playing Carradine in a regular season game until Carradine learns his assignments. Fine. If Carradine records a few sacks during the preseason, you can bet Fangio will find a way to use him in regular season games no matter how Carradine does on his assignments.

2. Corey Lemonier. A pass-rushing outside linebacker, like Aldon Smith. Lemonier will take Smith’s place in the starting lineup when Smith serves his suspension at the beginning of the season (the NFL has yet to suspend him but most likely will). The 49ers drafted Lemonier in the third round last year. He recorded just one sack in 284 snaps last season. Has he improved?

3. Nick Moody. Played just 10 snaps on defense as a rookie last season. Now, he’s competing with Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland to replace NaVorro Bowman in the starting lineup. Patrick Willis will play the “Mike” inside linebacker, the position Bowman played last year. Wilhoite currently is the starting “Jack,” the position Willis played last year. The “Jack” covers the tight end and the “Mike” usually doesn’t – that’s the main difference. Borland, a rookie third-round pick, doesn’t do well in coverage, so he’s suited to back up Willis at the “Mike.” Moody excels in coverage, so he has a chance to beat out Wilhoite at “Jack.” Moody is a better athlete than Wilhoite and has broken up more passes than Wilhoite in training camp.

4. Quinton Dial. Red-shirted most of last season. May become a starter by default because the 49ers’ top-two nose tackles – Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams – are injured. Dial is one of the biggest players on the team (6-5, 318 pounds), but can he stuff the run? He’s been stopping running backs in the backfield all camp.

5. Lawrence Okoye. Hurt his leg during last year’s preseason and missed the rest of the year. He’s British, a former rugby player and Olympic discus thrower. This is his second season playing football. The 49ers call him a defensive tackle but he’s not particularly skilled at that position, as you can imagine. But watch Okoye on special teams – he will cover kickoffs. He’s 6-foot-6 and 304 pounds so you won’t miss him. Imagine a 6-foot-6, 304-pound man sprinting down the field on kickoffs and clobbering people. Actually, don’t imagine that. You can see it on Thursday.

  1. Great break down Grant.

    A question for you – do you think the Jack LB (assuming Willis does indeed move to Mike) will be covering TEs this year as much as in previous seasons? Or do you think they will use Bethea in this role more than the Jack?

      1. Interesting – I must say I thought they would look to use Bethea in this role more than they used Whitner.

      2. I know you mentioned it briefly above but how has Wilhoite looked in coverage and just overall for that matter. I know he hasn’t batted down as many balls but has he looked solid? And who has he covered so far?

  2. Other players of particular interest to me (excluding rookies) are Kilgore, Looney, J. Martin, Patton, Gabbert and Cook.

  3. Grant, thanks for the breakdown.

    First preseason games are usually sloppy affairs. I’m expecting a sloppier then usual game tomorrow. The sudden shortage of edge running backs (Hunter,LMJ, Lattimore) will affect play calling to avoid wearing out Hyde.

    I’ll be watching Looney, Ward, Tank, Dial, Okoye, Martin… and crossing my fingers no major injuries.

    1. (am I the only one being drive nuts by the eastern media certainty that Aldon will face “significant” and “multi-game” suspensions?)

      1. Not at all! I think Aldon has been just as public about getting his act together and taking responsibility. I just don’t see the league suspending him. A fine maybe? Any suspension will be reduced by the number of games voluntarily missed last year, so he won’t miss anymore time.

  4. As far as the offense goes I will almost guarantee that they keep it extremely simple on offense, especially in the 1st preseason game. That is how Harbaugh has operated, there is no reason to change now. Stevie Johnson will make the team, practice catches doesn’t hold much weight. He will bring value when game planning, not 1 on 1 drills in training camp.

      1. Noted, let me reframe what I meant. I think he will add value in season because he is a former #1 WR 1,000+ yards multiple times. I understand his catches aren’t very high in practice team sessions. I think it would be safe to assume coverages and opportunities will be different when he is in the field with 15, 85, and 81. Really can’t fathom any situation where he won’t make the team.

        1. @Bman,

          Agreed,

          TC practices are a completely different animal as oppose to playing “Live” football against an NFL opponent. And we really won’t see much of Johnson until the 2nd Pre-season game, which I will be attending for the 1st game at Levi against the Broncos.

          Can’t wait!

          1. According to the author stats work in baseball, but in football it’s a cheap parlour trick writers use to mask the essence of the game.

            1. Gotcha! I was going to say you really can’t discredit Johnson’s stats because he played against the same Seahawks we do.

            2. Don’t be a hater Jack, the truth is the truth about stats. For losers and writers who use them as indeed a cheap parlour trick.

              1. Not quite, but it’s cool that Grant chose to use them in his piece after saying they’re useless a few days ago.

              2. For losers and writers who use them as indeed a cheap parlour trick

                Yeah, it’s not like NFL teams ever rely upon statistics to make decisions.

                You’ll notice that the 49ers feature prominently in the article.

                I know its human nature to fear what we don’t understand, but the team we root for is fully committed to using statistical analysis in its football operations. It seems to me that we have three options:

                1. Embrace the team’s use of statistical analysis and try to learn something about it so that we can understand what the team is doing;

                2. Accept that the team is using statistical analysis, recognize the team’s success using these methods, trust that team leaders know what they are doing, and enjoy the team’s on-field success; or

                3. Continue to live in fear and ignorance, demonizing statistical analysis even as the team we root for makes increasing use of it.

                The choice is pretty easy for me.

              3. People disavow stats when they don’t run counter to their preconceived thoughts.

                Guess what, those who “say stats are for losers, it’s all about wins and losses” are using stats themselves. Last time I checked wins and losses was a stat.

                Grant got a little over his skies and was called out on it. Instead of manning up and owning it he chose to fight back calling stats meaningless and agreeing they are a cheap parlour trick.

                I may have overstepped my bounds a bit, but I think writers who have the ability to create a narrative should be accurate, or at least willing to acknowledge their mistakes.

              4. You can’t base an opinion solely on stats, but to say they can’t or shouldn’t be used is ridiculous. Contracts are based on them; awards are based on them; ranking is based on them; Draft classes rely on them. They are totally necessary, and the biggest issue I see here is the fact certain people like to decide when they are necessary and when they aren’t. Opinions have to be consistent and not change on a whim when the evidence doesn’t meet your preconceived or preferred analysis.

              5. Jack, rocket:

                People disavow stats when they [] run counter to their preconceived thoughts

                …certain people like to decide when they are necessary and when they aren’t. Opinions have to be consistent and not change on a whim when the evidence doesn’t meet your preconceived or preferred analysis.

                Exactly. Also, it can be a lot of work to set aside your prejudices and assumptions, identify the relevant stats, chart/find them, study them, put them in appropriate context, etc before forming any conclusive opinions. Relying upon anecdotal evidence is much easier. You just have to find one or two plays that fit your preconceived narrative and you can conclude they are definitively representative.

              6. Magical thinking or facts (stats), facts or magical thinking? Hmmm, tough choice. Maybe I’ll go with magical facts…

                Magical thinking is great, because you can shape it to fit any “reality” you would like. Stats are what they are, and can certainly be manipulated (we see it every day on here), but they are not, in and of themselves, misleading. Stats don’t lie, people do.

                When stats are cherry picked, or otherwise misused to prove a half or quarter baked point, BS can be called with a little analysis because stats are data. Once BS is called, the claim that “stats are for losers”, usually isn’t far behind.

                Come on now, take off your tin foil hats, roll up your sleeves and embrace some stats. Start slowly. Keep in mind, as Jack pointed out, you have already used (and probably mastered) the “Wins and Losses” stat. You can do this!

        1. Jack, glad to see your selfless determination in carrying on the tradition of web zone writers who all seem to think that they know more than anyone else about the game of football. Keep up the good work!!! Give my regards to Jeff Kaplan who is just about the only person on that site who knows less about football than you.

            1. Hammer:
              “Guess what, those who “say stats are for losers, it’s all about wins and losses” are using stats themselves. Last time I checked wins and losses was a stat.”

              Hammer, I for one appreciate the leg-work you do providing stats.
              Having said that, I also know that stats don’t always tell the entire story.

              I use a different example to further explain my view on stats. Having been to a few live music concerts over the years I found that I’m only concerned about a couple of things.
              1. The performance on stage.
              2. The sound acoustics.
              I always just accepted the fact the crew setting up and taking care of the sound was a given, until I was allowed to come in a couple of hours before a concert to an auditorium where to my amazement, the sound crew was busting their butts in an effort to dial in the right sound.
              Point? Many people just want the end results (hear a good concert / wins & losses) rather than sweat the details.

              Stats are a good way to cut to the chase, but again, there could be a slew of reasons on how those stats were determined.
              Yes, stats don’t lie. But in many instances (especially in football) neither do the events that lead up to them. For many, those events have little value. Some folks would rather throw in the final stats and cut to the chase.

          1. It seems like its been getting real choppy in here. People just jumping down everyone’s throat. Why so uneasy? You would think people would be happier with the season starting.

            Maybe its just me…

            1. It’s all harmless debating Leo. It’s been like this for years. People like to argue especially Grant.

              1. It gets a little testy sometimes Leo no doubt about that. We have a lot of passionate football fans around here.

  5. ‘Imagine a 6-foot-6, 304-pound man sprinting down the field on kickoffs and clobbering people.’
    .
    .
    Imagine him blocking a few kicks here and there too.
    .
    .
    .
    *ALOHA*

  6. If I were to watch Hyde, I’d look to see his pass blocking, esp. blitz pickups. If he doesn’t get sufficiently good at it, he won’t see the field much in regular season, esp. on third downs.

  7. Thanks Grant.
    Nick Moody is an interesting player. I agree that he should be a better fit than Wilhoite in coverage given the fact that he played some Safety at FS.
    His 4.7, 40 gives him enough speed to contend with most TE’ in the league.

    I’m a little concerned about his 6’1″ height when covering taller TE’s. Borland (speed and height), Skov (speed) could not play the “Jack” position. These guys (especially Borland) do good sniffing out plays in a 5-15 yrd radius.
    I still see Wilhoite as the starter because TE’ are not a huge factor in our division.

    Hyde could turn out to be special for us and could bring immediate dividends. I like the fact that FGore seems to have taken him under his wings. This tells me that Gore is satisfied that the team made a good decision in choosing him and perhaps more importantly, feels that Hyde can truly help the team.

    Good matchups tomorrow. Wish it was September when all the moves and roster spots are established but I’m ready to enjoy the ride for now.

    1. What’s interesting is that Wilhoite played safety in college as well. I believe he posted a 4.7 at his pro day and was one of the top10 fastest ILB coming out along with Bowman that year. His measurables were pretty similar to Bowman.

      That’s why I think he wins this battle. He has some experience and I think he just needs to come along more from a mental stand point. But he definitely passes the eye ball test. The guy looks like a beast in interviews.

      1. Maybe Wilhoite will play Jack in base and Moody will play Jack in Nickel if Moody flashes in preseason.

        1. Good point Grant.
          Hopefully Moody takes full advantage of this opportunity.

          The thing about Wilhoite is we do know that he’s able to play the “Mike” and he was welcomed and pleasant surprise when he filled in for PWill last year.
          I hope he can do the same (surprise) at the “Jack” position this season.

          1. Wilhoite played jack last year and will play jack again this year. Patrick willis was playing jack last year and will play mike this year until bowman gets back.

  8. Hope I am wrong but I just don’t see MacDonald magically becoming a good receiver. He just has bad hands. With a lot of work he might become mediocre at best. Kind of reminds me of the effort they put into AJ last season to justify his high pick.

    1. That same talk was said about Delanie walker as well. I think he turned out pretty good. Macdonald was raw coming out of rice. He was going to be a player that really showed his potential year 2 and 3.. Do you not recall how bad Vernon was his first couple years? I’m predicting big improvements from Vance this year.

      1. CK,
        VD was a freak of nature. His combination of size and speed was worth the risk when the 49ers drafted him. It didn’t hurt that he was a proficient blocker as well.
        VD was not a great receiver coming out of college, but the potential for greatness was there because of his physical attributes.

        Like Delanie Walker, the team can afford to be a little patient with VMac because he is not the primary TE in our offense.
        Hey, I do hope he can conquer the drops.

        1. AES, of course physically and athletically Vernon is on a different world then McDonald and 99 % of the NFL. My point is that it takes time to develop and drops are correctable but you can’t teach his size and natural ability. I expect a big leap maybe not by numbers but in contributing more.

          1. CK,
            I hear you bud. I hope he becomes a big contributor as well.
            He was my pick a couple of months ago for the player who was ready to make a big impact this season.

      2. @CK=Elite

        I agree,

        McD will be just fine and should at least Triple what he produced last season in catches.

    2. That horse has been dead for months, and yet you keep beating it. I’m pretty sure we understand your position, even if you forgot to include your usual statements regarding the coaching staff’s arrogance and Baalke’s psychological unfitness to be GM.

  9. Grant,
    Question about the secondary. The 49ers have been mostly a man under two deep team in coverage under Fangio (from what I understand). From what you can tell, has that been their primary coverage in camp or are they mixing it up? With some of the new guys in the secondary, do you think they can still play that coverage on a consistent basis?

    1. The Niner’s coverage is actually a hybrid man and zone scheme. The coverage will look like a cover 2 shell but will morph based on the corner’s reads of the receiver’s route stems (and film study). vertical route = man coverage and horizontal route = zone coverage. and sometimes they will “2 read”/pattern match on one side and go with straight cover 2 or cover 2 man under on the other. and sometimes they will morph to an all zone quarters coverage. but all using a cover 2 shell which starts with the safeties splitting the field.

      i will say that last year I saw more of a quasi-cover 3/cover 1 look (shell)with the strong safety creeping up behind the linebackers. But I couldn’t tell what the coverage was after the snap.

      1. The CBs have been practicing passing off WRs to the safeties and playing the shallow zones like a classic Tampa 2.

        Also seems like the 49ers have been practicing Cover 3 Rip/Liz but they call it Ricky/Lucy.

          1. They’ve been blitzing the slot CBs and the inside backers but I haven’t noticed what coverages they’ve been playing behind those blitzes.

            1. Ok I just found it interesting that they were playing more cover 2 and am wondering if it’s so they can be more aggressive up front, or simply that they aren’t fully confident with the CB’s in man. Could also be that they feel they can get a more consistent rush with 4 now that Carradine and Dial have shown the ability to pressure. So many questions to be answered.

              1. They started working on Cover 2 more after Brock got hurt, so it might be a lack of confidence in the other CBs.

              2. I agree Razor and if the confidence level in the CB’s is lacking, then it becomes even more essential. This preseason is going to be very important for the secondary; no doubt about it.

            2. Anytime you blitz you lose a zone player and end up a zone short, that’s why hot reads attack said zone. Typically when blitzing especially in the NFL on anything +7 yards you will see man coverage and expect to get the blitz home.

        1. yes but are the corners passing off the coverage against vertical routes? I can imagine that they may play more press coverage. But I wonder if it’s exclusively press zone or a combo with press man too (which could be played out of Cover 3 Rip/Liz).

          I imagine that Fangio would play more cover 3 hybrid stuff based on his zone blitz/Capers background. But traditionally Cover 3 rip/liz is played out of a base 3-4 to go along with fire zone blitzing. I think Fangio hasn’t called as much Cover 3 and blitz packages because most of the time when the Niners are in a passing situation most opponents these days go to multi-WR sets that force the Niners into Nickel which also usually dictates 2 Safeties back. But have you seen Cover 3 played out of the Nickel? That would be interesting because there has been lots of commentary about how the Niner’s Nickel package has been vulnerable to the run and Cover 3 would allow them to drop a safety down to help protect the run.

          1. The Seahawks play cover 3 out of the Nickel but I haven’t seen the Niners do much of it. I think they could with Reid being as good as he was last year, but it comes down to the Corners again and whether they can hold up in press man. The fact they are working on Cover 2 so much leads me to believe they aren’t convinced of that; at least not yet.

            1. One of the outside corners plays man to man in Nickel Cover 3, and the 49ers have been doing some of that in camp.

              1. Grant, in that Nickle Cover 3, is one CB in man, or is he just locked up on any receiver in a short zone?

            2. @brother tuna

              I think it depends on the offense’s personnel and formation. if it’s a balanced formation, I think there may be more of a tendency to play zone/man across the field. but if it is unbalanced, then you’ll see man coverage on one side and man/zone on the other.

          2. Exactly, like I pointed out earlier, the extra defender not only can be in the box against the run, but to also spy a quarterback like Wilson…..

            1. the safety that drops down usually has to read the slot receiver or TE and know if they are going to drop down into the flat or protect the seam.

              1. That Rip/Liz Match pretty much is a pattern matching adjustment made from a traditional Cover 3, but evidently not what Grant was describing. Apologies….

              2. @razor

                the Niners do use rip/liz scheme out of Cover 3 somtimes. but they also pattern match and make coverage adjustments out of a “2 read” scheme.

                given the complexity of the coverage schemes the Niners play, it’s hard to determine what the coverage responsibilities are even by experienced NFL coaches much less beat writers and arm chair QB bloggers. so Grant is just telling us what he sees and trying to interpret it. he and the rest of us may or may not be correct in our interpretations.

              3. I’ve got a lot of respect for Fangio. Brilliant football mind, and Harbaugh is lucky to have him….

          3. here’s more info on 2 Read Coverage

            this may have been what I was seeing when i described the seeing one one of the safeties sometimes creeping up behind the linebackers out of a cover 2 shell.

              1. Zone defenders pretty much play mano y mano after the receiver is finished with their route…

              2. Not what I mean. Look at the NFC championship game, for example. Crabtree beat Byron Maxwell’s straight man coverage a couple of times when the other side of the Nickel defense was playing zone.

                If you line up three receivers on one side of the formation and one receiver on the other side against the Seahawks, the receiver by himself will get press man coverage.

              3. makes sense. the Niners are known to split their coverage schemes. plus it avoids having their zones flooded by unbalanced WR distribution in offensive formation.

          4. Yes, they have been passing off receivers on vertical routes. That’s how David Reed made a 25 yard catch Tuesday morning. Culliver passed him off and Bethea was late getting over.

            1. were their underneath receivers that would draw the Corners underneath?

              straight Cover 2 doesn’t seem like the Niner’s M.O. maybe they’re going over the basics? or maybe they’ve simplified the defense because of the younger and newer players in the secondary?

              1. If the receivers run vertical, it should look like Cover 1 man coverage, unless the receivers start to cross, then it would become zone, right?

              2. yes, if the corner was pattern matching he would have continued to run with the receiver. but Grant is saying that he saw the Corners pass off vertical route running receivers to the safeties. which is either by design (straight cover 2) or a mistake on the Corner’s part. it’s also why I asked him if he remembered if there were any underneath receivers that would draw the Corners in short zones.

              3. Guys:

                Thanks for the continuing education with this entire coverage thread. In my opinion, this kind of informed discussion represents the blog at its best.

              4. “Guys:

                Thanks for the continuing education with this entire coverage thread. In my opinion, this kind of informed discussion represents the blog at its best.”

                I couldn’t agree more, Claude. Well said!!!

              5. I agree Claude, this is an area I’m still a neophyte, so really enjoy the discussions about coverages and formations. Great for learning about the game and how the 49ers play.

            2. I’m not well read on coverage terminology, so my wording will be off… but I recall in 2011-12 the 49ers usually ran “2 deep, man under” with Whitner and Goldson dropping deep into zone while the CBs covered man. This coverage matched well with the excellent pass rush.

              Later in 2012 Aldon and Justin’s injuries slowed the pass rush. To compensate the 49ers ran more “Cover 4″ zone. This involved trading coverages as WRs went down the field. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it got burned. In the NFCCG Atlanta torched the D when switch-offs between Goldson and Whitner went badly.

              1. @brodie

                what grant, razor and I are discussing is the complexity of the coverage. cover 2 man under and cover 4 are what the Niners run sometimes. but the key thing to understand is that often the Niner’s type of coverage is determined POST SNAP. and that you will often get a mixed combo of man and zone by the defense on the same play.

                what the Falcons did to the Niner’s coverage was to pass out of bunched formations. with the receivers bunched up it makes it hard for the Niner’s Corners and Safety to read the Falcon receiver’s routes/intentions and determine if they need to play man or zone. that slight bit of confusion can give the opposing receivers a split second of extra time to get open or exploit holes created in the coverage.

              2. allforfunnplay, thanks for the info. Its easy to understand how a rookie WR can have difficulty adapting to the NFL.

                The one play that sticks out in my mind is in the first half. About 25-30 yards deep, Whitner let a WR pass expecting Goldson to pick him up. Goldson was a tick late in the exchange, and the Falcon WR streaked past for a long TD.

                The later part of the 2012 season was hard on the Niners pass defense. Pass rushing depth has supreme importance.

            3. That sounds like straight cover 2. A lot of times niners will play man into the boundary and zone to the field.

      2. The beauty of Fangio employing Rip/Liz is that when offenses want to attack three-deep zone, they run the tight end and slot receivers down the seams, but if they want to attack Cover 1 man, they run picks and crossing routes. Rip/Liz essentially gives the offense exactly what it doesn’t want to see. The reason they do this is because when the inside receivers run vertical, those nickel defenders and linebackers run vertical with them, but if they quickly break outside to the flat or inside on a cross, those linebackers and nickel backs, rather than chasing the receivers across the field, pass them on and drop to their zones and match up to the offense’s other receivers. The advantage is the extra defender in the box, who can also spy a quarterback like Wilson…..

  10. Less than 24 hours ’til football season!
    .
    NINERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    .
    .
    .
    *ALOHA*

  11. Willtalk,
    Totally agree. VMac needs to show that he is more of a real-game player than he is a practice one.

    He has all the physical abilities that you look for in a TE, but unless he is a monster at blocking (which he is not) his star could fade very quickly.

  12. Grant,

    I’ve always thought this offense really lost some diversity since Delanie Walker left. He allowed them to run power formations that could still threaten in the passing game.

    It looks like the niners hoped to replace him with Vance McDonald but are now hedging their bets with Trey Millard. I understand Millard is a FB but he has a very versatile skill set that seems to fit more in the Delanie Walker mold. I will be curious to see if the niners run any multiple TE sets and to see where Vance lines up… if he lines up where VD normally does or if lines up more like an H back.

  13. Grant I would like to see new wrinkles in the offense but you and I know Harbaugh shows nothing in the pre season…I mean nothing….

    1. ALL teams play vanilla in the preseason..especially the first outing.
      .
      That’s not just a Harbaugh thing.
      .
      .
      .
      *ALOHA*

      1. Agreed Rob but Harbs seems to excel at it….He almost seems to do it in the regular season banking we go to the playoffs then seem to open the playbook..I think were very Vanilla in the regular season wish Roman and co would let these guys play all season..Injuries happen cant play afraid..The Niners seem so different in the post season..

        1. Remember the Rams game when Kap pitched the ball way over Ginn’s head on that read option play?
          .
          The defense was playing practically lights-out up to that point.
          .
          My guess is…they were PISSED.
          .
          Just an example.
          .
          .
          .
          *ALOHA*

  14. I haven’t read the whole column, or the comments yet. After reading the first paragraph under Offense, I have a question. Grant, when was the last time you observed a NFL team using “new” features in their offense during exhibition games?

    Please site as meany as possible.

    1. I mean to call you a meany. I will award you with five points for each NFL coach/team combination that does what you suggest that Harbaugh has to do with his offense in this or any exhibition game.

  15. Grantniks Question of the Week

    Week 1:
    Will Jack Hammer, who has bashed Grant nonstop all training camp, continue to use Grant’s web site to drive traffic to his own self-published blog again this season?

    1. Hammer,
      Thanks for providing the read on Jeff Garcia.
      If Garcia can make Troy Smith (really? lol) a formidable QB, he could be on the fast track for an NFL coaching gig.

      Garcia will eventually find his way to the NFL because he is a great student of the game. We already know that he has the ability to have a good amount of patience after being in the same locker room with T.O.

  16. Off topic, but it looks like our old friend Jon Baldwin failed his physical with the Detroit Lions and was waived.
    Grant said that JB looked out of shape about a week ago.
    Does this guy really want a football career?

  17. Great breakdown Grant, but you missed the boat when you didn’t mention the new look secondary. That to me is the top thing on defense that bears watching. How will Brock look as the #1 CB? How will Culliver, Cook, Ward, Cox, Johnson, and Morris do? Does Bethea look like the answer to what ailed the SS position when Whitner was here?

  18. Lawrence
    (sprinting down the field and clobbering people)
    Okoye.

    Coach
    (talking about a football fight)
    Harbaw.

    Sounds like quite a combination, huh?.
    Question is… will it bring home a Lombardi trophy…?

    I am the Super Bowl monkey
    and I approve of this message.

    1. Normally people would hate to call themselves something that many unsanitary places on its body, but you’re psychotic so I guess you’re okay with it.

  19. Completely off topic, but I think that the Ray Rice thing will help Aldon. With the current uproar over the short ban by Goodell over Rice, can he realistically hammer Aldon? 2 games appealed down to one is a good bet. Max 2 games, minimum is a fine and time “served”.

    1. All of that makes perfect sense until you consider the fact that it is Roger Goodell whom we are talking about.

    2. Jon in SoCal,
      I was thinking the same way a couple of weeks ago after the league handed down their decision on R.Rice.
      I too, thought that on the heels of Rice’ two game suspension that it would be an injustice if Aldon received a longer suspension.

      But Goodell mentioned (a few days following the Rice decision) that the league makes a decision based on a players repeat infractions (not paraphrased).
      If the league uses that standard to levy out suspensions than Aldon stands to be suspended 2-4 games because of his off field incidents over the past few years.

      Like you, I hope that the league considers “time served” that Aldon has put in with his rehab last year.

      Also, I was a little surprised that Aldon was in camp on Monday and not serving his court ordered work furlough. With 11 Mondays of work to complete he would have had at least a couple by now (if served). Not sure how many hours he has to work so it may be that could be serving a few hours on Monday’s, but I’m not sure about that.
      I’m wondering if the court has allowed Aldon to chose his own days (Monday’s) to work?

      One thing for sure, the league will be meeting with Aldon very soon and we’ll all know what their verdict will be.

      1. On Aldon’s Mondays: It’s not uncommon for the Probation Dept to need time to set things in motion before someone enters the program. A month’s delay wouldn’t be that shocking.

        1. Thanks Brotha, that makes sense.
          At least Aldon’ practice time won’t be effected since the team has Monday’s off during the season.

      2. I think Aldon is supposed to serve 11 Mondays community service.

        The 49ers have a Monday nighter vs the Rams on Oct 13… only 10 Mondays from now. Will they let him skip a Monday community service?

        This is assuming the east coast media’s is wrong about Aldon getting at least an 8 game suspension… despite losing 5 games last season.

        1. Or… Aldon has some inside info that it will be an 8+ game suspension, so he’s in no hurry to start serving Monday community service. (parish the thought)

  20. Grant

    Good breakdown….I’ll watch, because I am interested in seeing the younger players(D-line). I’m more eager to see how Kaepernick handles himself…1 or two series won’t do it

  21. It’s the first exhibition game. The vets will make a cameo and then take a seat and become spectators. The only thing to watch for in a 1st preseason game is how the young players respond to game conditions. This is a chance for the rookies, second year guys and end of the roster candidates to show their stuff. This is why I like preseason. Not many do, but I do because it’s likely the only chance we’ll get to see some of these guys before they take a much lesser role or become completely irrelevant behind the starters once the season starts.

    Specifically, I want to see Ellington, Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker, Chuck Jacobs, Lawrence Okoye etc. This will be their game to shine or show they aren’t ready.

    1. If Purcell doesn’t look too effective (over the summer, not just this game) maybe Vic uses Dial and TJE at nose and maybe that opens the door a crack for Okoye. He’s not a complete end yet, but he can bull rush from inside in the Nickle in the rotation. His long arms in the passing lanes can’t hurt. He can cover and push up the middle on STs too. So he may be competing against Purcell.

  22. Thanks for upfront pregame analysis. I am one of those rare cats that look forward and enjoy the preseason way more than the average Joe.

    Been waiting for an emphasis on passes to backs. Good to hear. I hope Kap is ready for it. For it to be effective, however, it really needs to be included in check down progression a la the wizard BW. If it is merely a one dimension by design design toss to back then it will work just once maybe.

  23. small piece of advise from big brother John:
    … no “extra-firm” handshakes…
    ….no “over-the-top” celebratory back slaps

    Just plain ol’ ordinary football, hokay?
    (nod your head, Coach Harbaw…)

    Prediction: Ravens 21, Niners 13

    1. You’re actually making a big deal out of a preseason game. Really? Go back to playing with your Alex Smith doll now before you hurt yourself.

  24. Anybody know what’s happening with Luke Marquardt?
    .
    Seems like a really intriguing long-term project at Tackle.
    .
    Dude is like 6’7, 320!
    .
    .
    .
    *ALOHA*

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