49ers-Texans preview, what you need to be watching

This is my Saturday column.


That’s the main difference between preseason and training camp. In training camp players don’t hit each other — they play a slightly rougher version of two-hand touch. Coaches can’t learn much about their running game or their defense’s ability to tackle during this portion of the offseason.

That’s what the preseason games are for. They allow coaches to evaluate what they can’t gauge during practice.

Here are five things the Niners’ coaching staff should learn tonight against the Houston Texans.

1. Can the offense run the ball to the right?

The 49ers have two top-shelf offensive linemen, and they both play on the left side — Joe Staley at left tackle, and Alex Boone at left guard.

You don’t need to watch them during a preseason game. They’re proven.

You should watch the players on the other side of the offensive line — center Joe Looney, right guard Marcus Martin and right tackle Erik Pears. These three are not proven.

Watch them extra carefully during running plays. The Niners have a run-first offense, and it won’t work if the right side of the offensive line can’t block.

Track every time a Niners running back carries the ball to the right of the center. How many yards does he average on those runs? How often does a defender hit him in the backfield?

If the Niners can’t run to the right, defenses can expect them to run to the left, overplay that side and take away those runs, too. The 49ers need to run right.

2. Can the secondary hold up when the defense blitzes?

Vic Fangio, the Niners previous defensive coordinator, almost never blitzed. Which made sense. He had a terrific four-man pass rush and cornerbacks who were nothing special. Fangio didn’t expose the corners to one-on-one matchups. They almost always had safety help.

Under Fangio the Niners defense ranked top-five in fewest yards allowed every season.

Now Fangio is out, and the new defensive coordinator is Eric Mangini, who has completely changed the Niners’ defensive philosophy if training camp is any indication.

Mangini is in love with blitzes. He can’t stop calling them. During practice, he’ll blitz the strong safety one play and the free safety the next. Then Mangini will make the inside linebackers line up outside and the outside linebackers line up inside. Then he’ll make the outside linebackers blitz through the A-gaps on either side of the center. If you don’t know what an A-Gap is it doesn’t matter. Mangini is doing exotic stuff.

His blitzes are boom-or-bust plays. Sometimes, they will work and the defense will sack the quarterback. Sometimes they will fail, and the Niners’ mediocre corners will get torched for big gains.

Which outcome will happen more often Saturday against the Texans?

3. Can Nick Moody stop the run?

The Niners are searching for an inside linebacker to replace the retired Patrick Willis, and they may have found one.

Third-year inside linebacker Nick Moody has been one of the breakout stars of training camp, intercepting three passes during 11 practices.

The Niners drafted Moody primarily to play special teams — that’s what Moody mostly played at Florida State. But he has the size and speed to play inside linebacker, and the Niners have been trying to teach him that position the past two years.

Inside linebacker requires more than size and speed. It requires instincts and technique — knowing where the run is going and getting there without wasting steps. This did not come easily to Moody. He frequently took his first step in the wrong direction the past couple of seasons.

It’s hard to tell during practice if he has improved his technique against the run — there’s no tackling. We’ll get a much better sense of Moody against the run in Saturday’s game.

4. Can DeAndrew White be the No. 3 receiver?

If Moody is the breakout star of training camp on defense, undrafted rookie wide receiver DeAndrew White is the breakout star on offense.

White seemed like a long shot to make the final roster when the Niners signed him this offseason. In four seasons at Alabama, he caught just 94 passes, and suffered a torn ACL in 2012.

Watching him practice with the 49ers, you’d think he was a Heisman Trophy winner. He makes spectacular catches almost every day. Not only does he have a good chance to make the team, he might end up being the No. 3 receiver.

“I like him in the battle with the No. 3 receiver,” Niners’ No. 1 cornerback Tramaine Brock said on Thursday.

“What does he do well?” a reporter asked.

“Everything,” Brock said. “Speed, quickness, power — I feel like he’s got it all.”

Look for White to play some in the first quarter, and a lot in the second and third quarters, and potentially lead the league in receiving yards during the preseason.

5. Can Colin Kaepernick play in games the way he plays in practice?

Tiger Woods always is remaking his swing. The new swing typically looks good when Woods is focused on his mechanics during warm-ups. Sometimes, the new swing looks good on Day 1 or Day 2 of a small tournament in some out-of-the-way place when he’s facing little pressure.

But the new swing tends to fall apart on Day 3 or 4 of a big tournament when Woods has things on his mind other than mechanics and the world is watching.

Cut to Colin Kaepernick, who remade his throwing motion this offseason. He widened his base, shortened his release and took speed off his passes. He’s also going through his progressions quicker.

At times during practice you can see Kaepernick fully integrating all of these new techniques. Sometimes they look like second nature to him.

Will they look like second nature during a game? Or when the live action starts and pass rushers bear down on him and he has to think fast and precisely, will Kaepernick revert to his old habits? Will he embrace his inner Tiger?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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  1. Mostly agree with Grant’s post, but maybe not #4. I don’t think one game can settle the Third WR spot; but two good outings in Preseason combined with his body of work in practice might be enough for the coaches. They still probably won’t tip their hand on that until the last opportunity.
    My game score prediction? None. I haven’t got a clue what we’re going to see from our guys this time out; too much experimentation thus far on the OL.

    1. I know that any prediction is a shot in the dark, and any prediction can be posed with scant reasoning.
      My educated guess is that Gabbert is going to be better than the Texan back up QB, and that the Niner defense will get some sacks. Kaep will impose his will upon the defense if Watt can be neutralized. If not…. then I foresee struggles. The good factor is that the Texans do not want to play Watt very much for risk of injury. So if the Niner seconds can demonstrate their skills, the Niners will win.

      1. Sebny, Gabbert’s success will come down to second team 49er O line vs Texas D line. He may have a long day as 49er O line depth is suspect. But even if he has a not so good day, as your educated guess suggests, he may still have a “better day” than the Texas QB 2 since the 49er D line looks to have some serious depth / strong 2nd tier and thus maybe tilt in favor of 49ers in later quarters.

        In your formula are you expecting Gab to be matched up against Mallet or Hoyer?

        Is Jadeveon Clowney in your formula? If he makes a debut this game, it could be with second team.

        First round round pick CB Kevin Johnson could be a disruptor at that point in the game. Factor him in. Also mildly factor in third rounder Jaelen Strong and fifth rounder Keith Mumphrey who could be a favorite targets for QB at that point in the game.

        I am going to guess that the game will be decided in later rounds and thus by which team as most over all quality depth. Starters on both teams will struggle.

        1. Points taken, but these are additional factors which affect the overall assessment. You could be astute to surmise that Thompson in the 4th may be the deciding factor, and since I like Thompson and thinks that he has an accurate arm, I concur with your prediction.
          I really hope Kaep does not struggle.
          Thomas matched up pretty well against JClowney, while at Clemson. Another factor to consider.

        2. Why do I say impose his will? because Kaep will have Boldin, Torrey, Hyde, Davis and Miller as potential options, and no defense can defend all 5 without some weakness. All Kaep has to do is exploit that weakness by giving his playmakers the ball in space, and create a multi option west coast style offense that controls the ball and scores. Niners have to improve upon the 30th rated passing offense, and the loss of Roman make that prediction achievable.

    2. The way I read his article Grant didn’t say this one preseason game would win White the #3 spot. He implied that he is someone to watch because if he does well in pre-season ( just like you imply) he could earn the spot.

  2. I’m expecting the run game to be ragged throughout the game… starters vs starters, backups vs backups. The 49ers will show the world plain jane run plays. They will play with their 3rd, 4th, 5th string backs. JJ Watt will be all jacked to make a splashy play.

    And that’s fine.

    I want to see how linemen play. If Martin gets pushed around like he does in Grant’s practice reports, center should be his spot (at least for this year).

    I have a hunch they will run gap left / zone right at times in the regular season, but not tonight.

    1. Brodie, it seems to me that Marcus Martin’s body looks a bit like Jonathan Martin’s — a bit pudgy and pasty with not a lot of muscle definition. I wonder if he’s just not strong enough to hold his ground. Any thoughts?

      1. I’m stunned Grant says Martin’s getting pushed around in TC.

        After he was drafted I jumped on his game footage. Watched about 80 snaps. Marcus seemed plenty strong. Marcus had a very good gave vs Louis Nix. He used quickness to turn Nix away from the play, and used power to keep him away.

        What was most impressive was his feet. He’d pick off linebackers in space. He even had some cool Randy Cross like pulls from the center spot. Agile. Fast. Plenty of power. I totally get why Baalke wants him at Guard.

        I wonder if it has anything to do with the dropped lbs. Tomsula laid down the mandate he would be “the only fat guy in the room”, and AD busted butt all offseason getting in shape (I’ve been following his workout routines).

        He’s in the best shape of his young career. It may be more about lack of girth, than lack of power.

        It could also be the changed timing on the hits. Tomsula noted that’s a factor during position changes. If he’s “beaten to the punch” he could get roller-skated by guys he’d normally match-up well with.

      2. Could be you are right. Perhaps they are both players who hit their ceilings playing on the college level and just don’t have the muscle or desire to succeed at that next level.

        1. From everything I have heard and seen about Marcus Martin, he really dedicated himself to getting in shape this offseason, and is totally enthused about football.

          Its possible that his natural position will always be center.

          He’s also only 21 years old. He’s a growing young man.

  3. I’ll be watching the steps of the running backs and the offensive lineman. Within that ZBS, the back must either head downhill or outside by his third step, which should coincide with his lineman’s third step as they engage their respective defenders….

  4. Grant do you believe that Mangini will blitz much during the preseason? The last 2 49er D coordinators who liked to blitz were P. Carrol and R. Rhodes and neither of them blitzed much in the preseason. I believe we will see a very vanilla defense, I think Mangini will see what kind of push he can get sending 4.

  5. Order of Importance:
    No. 1: Can Kaepernick be a top-ten quarterback? Likely.
    No. 2: Can the defense pressure quarterbacks without Aldon Smith? Unlikely.

  6. Nice trip tick for tonight.
    Seems runs up middle are potential for trouble – everything left of two vets – translation – middle plus right side equals concern. RBs and QBs may look worse than should be. No time for QBs to get deep passes to new speedsters, Smith and company. Kap may be forced to return to hold habits. Can he, instead, find Vance Mac or Bush for safety valve dump offs?

  7. Oops there goes another one. Redskins lose another TE, increasing the likelihood of a trade involving the 49ers from 60% to 75%….

        1. No. They signed him to a multiyear 2 mill deal. He also catches the ball. I like VM, but if he cannot catch the ball, he is expendable.

  8. Razoreater I was just thinking the same thing. There is going to be a trade or two before the season starts. I would think a TE or a DT is gone before season starts.

    1. If healthy, Hunter has that burst and great running instincts that Kinda reminds me of Wendell Tyler. He would be a potent weapon in their arsenal.

  9. Looks like JJ Watt is supposed to be lining up on the left side of Houston’s defense. As Barrows notes, it could be “sack city” which might lead to a call to Mathis.

  10. I still believe the 49ers r “all in” on proving the doubters wring and challenging for the Lombardi, therein, I don’t believe they will trade and high value assets- ie, Vernon (I also think he challenges for 1,000 yards and signs two yr extension to end his career w the 49ers).

    I still believe McDonald has potential, largely due to his calue as a blocker, but is there thst significant of disparity between #2 n #7 TE? I think they let the buyer make the offer and will take the best deal… And it would be best to make a move sooner than later before someone else ships them a TE

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