It’s almost impossible to evaluate the 49ers’ starters after their first preseason game.
We don’t know how much the 49ers game planned for the Broncos – probably not very much. And the starters played just one series. Frank Gore and Justin Smith did not play at all.
That should change next week. Gore should get at least four carries and a couple of passes thrown his direction just to get his feet wet. The starters should play the whole first quarter. And in the third exhibition game, the starters should play the entire first half and the coaches definitely will introduce scouting reports and full game plans.
Until then, the backups deserve most of the scrutiny.
But before I get to the backups, I have one observation about the starters: They still have serious work to do with their passing game.
The 49ers’ offense is dominant when it stays “ahead of the chains” and defenses cannot predict whether Colin Kaepernick is going to pass the ball, hand it off or run it himself. I’m talking first-and-10, second-and-6, third-and-2.
When the 49ers fall behind the chains (second-and-10, third-and-6, third-and-10) due to a bad play or a penalty, the 49ers’ offense becomes subpar for at least two reasons:
1. The 49ers do not have a legitimate split end. A.J. Jenkins was supposed to be that player – the 49ers drafted him in the first round last year – but he’s mostly passive on the field. Against the Broncos Thursday night, he fumbled the one pass he caught. It was embarrassing. Unless he turns it around fast – and let’s face it, he probably won’t – the 49ers will have to use a combination of Kyle Williams (sixth-round pick in 2010) and Marlon Moore (undrafted free agent in 2010) at split end. Between the two of them, they have 47 career catches.
2. The 49ers’offensive line struggles in pass protection. They’re big guys built to run block. Once running isn’t an option, like on third-and-10, the 49ers’ big blockers are vulnerable, especially right tackle Anthony Davis. He gave up a team-high 45 QB pressures last season (9 sacks, 5 hits and 31 hurries). Considering how infrequently the 49ers found themselves in pure passing downs last season, that’s a high number. Against the Broncos Thursday night, Davis could not handle Von Miller. On second-and-10, Davis committed a false start penalty because it seemed he was worried Miller would beat him around the outside, so Davis jumped back a second too soon. Two plays later on third-and-19, Miller spun around Davis to the inside and forced Kaepernick to roll out of the pocket and throw a pass 7 yards short of the first-down marker.
These passing-game problems probably will persist for the 49ers this season. They must work around them.
Now, on to the backups.
1. Backup offensive line. It was tough to evaluate the backup quarterbacks, receivers and running backs because the backup offensive line was horrendous against the Broncos, especially the backup tackles, Kenny Wiggins and Patrick Omameh. They could not run block or pass protect.
Colt McCoy and Scott Tolzien had to run for their lives, and McCoy sustained a neck stinger. If either Joe Staley or Anthony Davis gets hurt this year, the 49ers don’t have a backup tackle to replace him. Jim Harbaugh would have to move the right guard, Alex Boone, to tackle. So, Boone, Davis and Staley are three of the most important 49ers this season.
2. Backup quarterbacks. Even though they were running for their lives, it was clear that McCoy and Tolzien are significant downgrades from Alex Smith. Smith is more talented than those two – bigger, stronger arm, plus he has much more experience. The 49ers’ most talented backup quarterback is rookie B.J. Daniels. He didn’t play a single snap at quarterback against the Broncos. If Kaepernick misses any time this season, the 49ers are in trouble.
3. Backup pass rushers. The 49ers had none they trusted last season, so Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks had to play practically every defensive snap. This season, it seems the 49ers will have three good backup pass rushers – Parys Haralson, Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta. All three got pressure Thursday night – Skuta had two sacks, Haralson one and Lemonier almost had one – he chased Brock Osweiler from the pocket all the way to the sideline before Osweiler threw the ball away.
BONUS: Special teams. The 49ers had one of the best special teams units in the NFL in 2011. Blake Costanzo tackled everybody, and David Akers couldn’t miss field goals. In 2012, the 49ers special teams were middle-of-the-road. Costanzo signed with the Bears after the 49ers showed they had no interest in keeping him, and Akers missed 14 field goals. This season without Michael Crabtree, the 49ers will need their former dominant special teams to be dominant once again. Against the Broncos, two players made big tackles to pin Denver near their end zone – Kassim Osgood and Ricardo Lockette. Those two could make the final roster just to play special teams. Overall, the 49ers’ kick coverage should improve this season.
Place-kicking is another story. The 49ers signed a new kicker this offseason, 38-year old Phil Dawson. He made two out of three field goals last night, but hooked one wide of the goal posts – an Akers Special.
Should 49er Faithful start to worry about Dawson? Should they start to worry about the 49ers’ passing game?
No. The 49ers have played only one game. You can start to worry in a couple of weeks.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.