The Niners play the Saints in New Orleans tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time.
What are the top 5 things you’re looking for in the first preseason game?
Here’s my list:
- Mistakes. The Niners have described themselves as “behind the eight ball” preparing for this season, because they needed to install brand-new systems on offense and defense, and the lockout hindered their ability to do that. Their opponent, the Saints, are not behind the eight ball, because they’ve got coach and player continuity. So, I’d expect them execute their plays better, and look closer to mid-season form than the Niners. But if there’s no discernable difference mistake-wise between the two teams, credit goes to Jim Harbaugh for coaching his team up so quickly.
- Play-calling. Do Harbaugh and Vic Fangio keep it vanilla or do they differentiate themselves from the previous dull signal-callers right away? On offense, who calls the plays, Harbaugh or Roman? If it’s Roman, what does Harbaugh do? Will we actually know who calls the plays? They are kind of vague about this. On defense, does Fangio call blitzes in the first preseason game?
- Alex Smith. Can he execute all the throws the coaches ask him to make? Does he do more than check-down to Gore and throw seams to Vernon Davis? Can he convert third downs? Does he commit any delay of game penalties? Does he throw to his wide receivers at all? Is Braylon Edwards his go-to target in the redzone? Does he give the fans reason for hope for this season? Smith has shown in practice he can do all these things. Can he show it in this preseason game against one of the best teams in football?
- Colin Kaepernick. He probably will take twice as many snaps as Smith. Is Kaepernick already in his league? If not, what’s holding him back, except inexperience? Does he make nervous rookie mistakes, like fumble the snap? If he moves the ball as well as Smith, is there a quarterback controversy already? Does Harbaugh use Kaepernick strictly as a back-up QB, or does he bring him in on Wildcat-esque plays in the first quarter with the first team?
- Chris Culliver. Shawntae Spencer most likely won’t play, since he’s working through an injury. Who will start opposite Carlos Rogers at cornerback? Is it Culliver? He played with the first-team yesterday in camp, and Harbaugh says he’s “been arrow up,” meaning he’s improving. Is he arrowing himself up into the starting lineup? Remember, Fangio doesn’t seem thrilled with Spencer. When asked earlier in camp if he is a starter for sure, Fangio said, “He’s in the mix.”
Follow me on twitter @grantcohn.