The 49ers notched their first victory of the 2021 preseason with a 15-10 defeat of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium.
The theme of the week was all about showing improvement from week one. Let’s take a look at the answers to the 5 burning questions that I asked on before the game to see who improved and who didn’t.
1. How will the quarterbacks look? UNEVEN
Jimmy Garoppolo only played one series for the second week in a row. That one series was vintage Garoppolo, featuring a number of short throws to keep the sticks moving and getting the offense down to the Chargers’ 33-yard line. Facing third and 11, Garoppolo had Brandon Aiyuk wide open over the middle for a first down but his throw sailed high and the wide receiver could not hang on. The tipped ball would be intercepted by Chargers rookie CB Asante Samuel Jr. The turnover ended up being Garoppolo’s final play of the night, with the veteran finishing 3-6 for 15 yards with one interception and one scramble for 10 yards.
Trey Lance would have a bit of uneven performance in his second NFL game. The rookie missed Deebo Samuel with an inaccurate throw to end his first drive of the game and throw an interception on his second.
Things turned around for Lance late in the first half when he would lead the offense on a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the final moments of the first half that would culminate with a five-yard touchdown throw to Mohamed Sanu. The touchdown was set up by a beautiful deep throw from Lance to Trent Sherfield down the right sideline for a gain of 41 yards.
On the second possession of the second half, Lance once again lead the 49ers’ offense down the field. The 10 play, 63-yard drive featured a nice scramble by Lance to pick up a first down, and a bootleg pass to Richie James, and ended when the rookie drilled the ball over the middle to Travis Benjamin who took the ball into the endzone.
Lance finished his night 8-14, 102 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He was also able to add eight yards on the ground.
Nate Sudfeld saw his first action as a member of the 49ers in mop up duty, completing three of his five attempts for 24 yards.
2. Will the pass blocking improve? YES
The 49ers’ pass blocking was much improved from a week ago. Trey Lance was sacked twice, but one of those was due to him holding the ball instead of running for a first down after breaking out of the pocket to his left.
With rookie Aaron Banks out of the lineup, the 49ers juggled their second offensive line, moving Colton McKivitz to right guard and Senio Kelemete to left guard. This change seemed to help the interior of that second unit hold up better in pass protection.
The second sack of Lance came at the expense of third-team right tackle Corbin Kaufusi. He won’t make the final roster, so it’s odd that you’d have your future franchise quarterback out there with him.
3. Will the running game get going? YES
After struggling to generate any movement upfront last week, the San Francisco offensive line did a much better job against Los Angeles. Wayne Gallman and JaMycal Hasty would combine for 121 on 30 carries before the 49ers started to run the clock out at the end of the game. The average of four yards per carry was a big jump.
The biggest running play of the game probably went unnoticed by most, and it came on Trey Lance’s final drive of the night. Facing first and twenty after a penalty, Kyle Shanahan called a draw to Wayne Gallman that would pick up seven yards. This would get the offense back into a manageable situation for second down and they would finish the drive off in the endzone.
4. Can the 49ers figure out their kickoff return? Not conclusive
Richie James was back for three kickoff returns and downed two of them in the endzone to give the 49ers the ball at the 25, which was a positive change. The negative was James gaining only 18 yards the one time he attempted a return. This came on a free kick after Jordan Willis sacked Easton Stick in the endzone for a safety.
Free-agent acquisition Nsimba Webster showcased his talent as a returner for the second game in a row. On his lone opportunity, Webster would bring the ball out from two yards deep in the endzone and get to the 25 before being brought down. At least he gives the 49ers a threat in the return game.
At this point, it’s hard to see what value James brings to the team. He hasn’t been good as a returner and has consistently dropped passes throughout camp.
5. Can the 49ers secondary put up a repeat performance? YES
Just like they did a week ago, the San Francisco secondary did an excellent job of containing the Chargers through the air, holding them to an average of only 4.1 yards per pass.
The 49ers started all three of their rookie secondary players from the 2021 draft. While Ambry Thomas gave up a deep completion down the right sideline, Deommodore Lenoir had a solid pass break up over the middle, and Talanoa Hufanga showed up strong in the run game for the second week in a row. Hufanga may have a shot at replacing Tavon Wilson at strong safety with the improvement he has shown so far.
The strong play by the secondary has been helped greatly by a ferocious pass rush that just keeps coming throughout the game. Against the Chargers, the San Francisco defense registered five sacks. Among those was the first for Samson Ebukam as a member of the 49ers when he chased down Easton Stick.
The pass rush would put the first points on the board when Jordan Willis blew by the Chargers’ right tackle to sack Stick in the endzone for a safety. The other three sacks came from Arik Armstead, Kai Nacua and Kentavius Street. Street being near the bottom of the depth chart for the final roster shows just how dominant the potential of this group is.