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 firstname.lastname@example.org.