After dropping their first preseason game of 2021, the 49ers will be in Los Angeles on Sunday evening to take on the Chargers at SoFi Stadium. While there were some exciting moments, there were also a number of breakdowns in execution that need to be cleaned up prior to the start of the regular season. Here are five areas to keep an eye on during the game to see if there is an improvement.
1. How will the quarterbacks look?
Jimmy Garoppolo only played one series last week and completed all four of his attempts, one of which was called back due to an offensive pass interference on tight end Charlie Woerner. This may sound like a good performance, but it wasn’t all that impressive when you realize that his four passes traveled a total of five yards past the line of scrimmage.
It’s expected that Garoppolo will play about a quarter on Sunday. During practice this week getting the ball downfield seemed to be a point of emphasis, with a Garoppolo taking a number of deep shots.
When Trey Lance takes the field, the rookie will be looking to improve from his play last week. In his NFL debut, Lance made some exciting plays, highlighted by an 80-yard touchdown strike to Trent Sherfield. Along with the big plays came some growing pains. There were a number of times that Lance passed up open throws or failed to recognize the blitz and deliver the ball to his hot read and would be sacked.
It’s clear that Lance looks for the big play far more often than Garoppolo. To show growth he will need to demonstrate the ability to be more efficient and hit the throws that are there to be made.
Nate Sudfeld did not get into the game last week and will be looking to get his first snaps in a game since the last game of the 2020 season when he imploded on Sunday Night Football as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s been up and down throughout camp, so it will be interesting to see what type of performance he can come up with.
2. Will the pass blocking improve?
The 49ers struggled to protect the quarterback throughout the first half on Saturday night, giving up a total of five sacks and seven hits on the quarterback. Four of those sacks came with Trey Lance in, and while the first two were the result of the rookie not getting the ball out on time, there were a number of missed assignments upfront.
The starting offensive unit is expected to see their playing time extended this week, and keep an eye on the performances of right guard Daniel Brunskill and left tackle Jaylon Moore. These two in particular have been inconsistent throughout training camp.
3. Will the running game get going?
It wasn’t only in the passing game that the 49ers’ offensive line struggled. Running backs Trey Sermon and Wayne Gallman were able to gain only 3.3 yards per carry as the offensive line provided very little push and struggled to provide running lanes during the first half. Veteran center Alex Mack did not play, and his status for Sunday is unknown. His presence in the lineup could provide a big boost even with rookie Jaylon Moore starting at left tackle in place of Trent Williams.
4. Can the 49ers figure out their kickoff return?
Last season San Francisco was not good at returning kickoffs, finishing with the fourth-worst average in the NFL and often not being able to get the ball out past the 20-yard line. This would once again be the case on the first three returns Saturday night as Richie James and Nsimba Webster could manage to gain only 36 yards combined. Webster would eventually break free for a 43-yard return in the fourth quarter, but this unit needs to show the ability to consistently get the ball out to at least the 25-yard line.
5. Can the 49ers secondary put up a repeat performance?
The San Francisco secondary did an excellent job of containing the Chiefs through the air, holding them to an average of only five yards per pass. While they only had to face Patrick Mahomes for one series, I would expect Justin Herbert to play at least the first quarter. The 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, will provide a much stiffer challenge this week.
Veteran Tavon Wilson was given a vet day off on Friday. If he doesn’t play on Saturday that would give the start to rookie Talanoa Hufanga. Hufanga played well in his NFL debut last week, flying around the field and seeming to be around the ball on every play. Another strong performance could land him in the starting lineup.