Can the 49ers show improvement against Chargers? 5 burning questions for preseason week 2

San Francisco 49ers running back Trey Sermon (28) runs against Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Tyler Clark (93) during an NFL preseason football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

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.

This article has 33 Comments

  1. Head coach Brandon Staley said Thursday that a majority of his starters will not play in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Rams at SoFi Stadium – including quarterback Justin Herbert and safety Derwin James. Chase Daniel will get the start at quarterback Saturday before giving way to Easton Stick.

    1. Guys, Brian Renick over at the 49ers WEBZONE just wrote a fantastic editorial, covering his reasoning for Kyle to name Trey Lance the starter. It’s a good read, and I highly recommend it. He covers some of the same stuff I have, but he brings up Mike McDaniel by name (the mad run game scientist), and speaking to the ways in which Kyle and Mike have been scheming ways in which to unleash Trey Lance, in order to take their offense to an entirely different level. He talks about Trey’s floor being Jimmy’s ceiling in relation to the run game, which reinforces the notion that Kyle and Mike can keep the offense running at a high level even as Trey develops, due in large part to the added element that Trey brings to their offense.

      And it’s easy to imagine how a game plan leaning heavily on running the football and therefore controlling the clock (and in theory, limiting turnovers) to go along with a shutdown defense, would sure seem to be a winning formula. It’s a formula Kyle prefers. He’s always believed that the best way to win games is to control the football using ground and pound (and now with Trey, a heavy does of zone/reads, and RPO’s, and designed QB keepers) and then using that ground and pound attack to set up explosive pass plays via play action.

      He can have his cake and eat it to, because it allows Trey to get the snaps he needs for his development, while winning games in the process.

      Win / Win!

  2. Razor,
    I’m confused why are you posting about Staley’s plans for last weeks game.
    Are you going to be doing in game blogs this year?

    1. Staley went a step further when asked about future preseason games. Herbert, James and several other first-teamers won’t see any action until Week 1 at FedExField against the Washington Football Team.

      Hope that helps clear up your confusion, OldCoach.

  3. Your 5 burning thoughts all always solid and relevant each week! ?

    I am most intrigued about 4 especially once the regular season starts.

    1. Thank you. Special teams are usually an afterthought, but they struggled last year. The return game was especially bad.

  4. Air yards don’t win games. Jimmy G’s lack of air yards is the least of my concerns. My hope for Jimmy G is his reduction of turnover-worthy plays and playing thru injury in his last season with the Niners.

    However, it’s Question #3 that interests me most. Success of Kyle’s game plan is predicated on getting the run game on track. Wonder if Mack will play a series of two with the starters.

    1. Mood, I’m not sure what you mean when you say air yards don’t win games. Are you saying that a 1 yard completion is just as good as a 25 yard completion? Are you really saying that all completions are equal?

      Of course it matters how far the ball travels down the field. This factor certainly isn’t the be-all-to-end-all when it comes to pass plays, but the average depth of pass attempts absolutely matters. There is a reason why the term “dink and dunk” has such a negative connotation. Sure, Kyle does like his receivers to maximize YAC, that’s a quality he looks for in his receivers. Kyle also designs plenty of plays that are specifically designed to take advantage of YAC. But that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter if his QB is limited in his ability to throw downfield, because it absolutely does matter. And in the context of evaluating a QB, their ability to make accurate throws down the field, as opposed to short passes at, or around the LOS, also matters.

      And this is a real thing for Kyle Shanahan. In fact, Kyle uses the term “explosives” to describe plays designed to pick up huge chunks of yards. And many of those plays are designed to be long throws. It’s one of Garoppolo’s weaknesses that actually bother Kyle Shanahan. It’s a problem if his QB can’t hit those plays fairly consistently, just as it’s a problem when his QB is constantly looking for the shortest routes on any given pass play, and it’s been a problem for Garoppolo throughout his 49ERS tenure.

      I know Kyle wants people to believe that the only reason he’s been looking to replace Jimmy for a couple years now, is because of Jimmy’s injury history, but I can assure you that there is much more to it then that.
      That’s not to discount Garoppolo’s winning record as a 49ers QB. Jimmy has made some big plays at big moments. But it puts added pressure on a play caller when a QB is extremely inconsistent with his deep throws to the point that he’s hesitant to even take those shots when they are there for him. I can assure you Kyle hasn’t forgotten about the deep pass to Emmanuel Sanders that Jimmy over threw so badly that his WR never even had a chance to make a play for the football, and I doubt he ever will.

      1. For instance, take Deebo Samuel. I think there is a misconception among some 49ers fans, that Kyle Shanahan wants to use Deebo Samuel primarily as a gadget player, catching most of his passes at, or behind the line of scrimmage, and letting him act as a hybrid RB. That’s actually not what Kyle primarily wants to do. Deebo Samuel can do that (although he tends to get banged up), but he’s also a very good intermediate route runner. I know as a matter of fact that it was Deebo’s route running that really caught Kyle’s eye at the senior Bowl. early 2019. And Deebo Samuel plays much, much faster than whatever he officially times in the 40 yards dash. In fact Deebo’s top speed, which he reaches pretty darn quickly, was clocked by Next Gen Stats as one of the fastest top speeds for all WR’s in the NFL, when he was a rookie in 2019. The reality is that Kyle’s been forced to lean on more of those plays than he’d like to, because of Jimmy’s struggles at getting the ball downfield sometimes.

        Listen, Kyle likes big explosive pass plays down the field as much as most coaches do, it’s just that Kyle uses his zone rushing schemes and play-action to set it up. He’s definately a fan of YAC, but Kyle’s playing to Jimmy’;s strength, which is the quick game., right? When Kyle had QB Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Kyle used his outside zone rushing scheme, and play action concepts to set up a ton of passing concepts in the intermediate to deep are of the field, and the Atlana Falcons broke offensive records because of it!

        Kyle knows how to get the most out of his QB’s, even the young ones. It’s what he does!

    2. I hear where you’re coming from. The only problem with constantly throwing short is it allows the defense to play tighter to the line which makes things more congested for the run game.

      1. Jack:

        I keep reading in almost every practice that Lance is throwing the ball high multiple times. Are you concerned about this? Am I correct in assuming that he won’t have time to really work on this until the next offseason?

        1. The high throws are definitely a concern. We discussed this with one of the QB coaches that he’s worked with since NDSU shut down on Thursday. It’s definitely a mechanics issue.

          Yes you are correct. Once OTA’s and training camp get started they are pretty much on their own. Shanahan stated this as well when asked about it back during OTA’s.

          1. Jack:

            Thanks for taking the time to put this out on the internet. But I have to say I was a little confused by Coach McEvoy’s response. He talks about the full extension as being key to minimize wobbliness and then indicates that lack of full extension can lead to high throws. But it doesn’t feel like a real answer because he also seems to mention that the full extension is about 5% of the throw and equates it to providing the “prettiness” of the throw (i.e. the tight spiral). But the high throws are happening at a pretty high rate so it seems odd that Coach McEvoy would suggest that it is caused by a mechanics issue that is only 5% of the throw. He says “how important is it”. It’s 5% of the throw.” So maybe the extension is only of 5% importance, but the result of a relatively high rate of high throws is not. Consistently throwing the ball high is going to get him in trouble.

            Maybe for most QBs it’s of 5% importance, but it would seem that for Trey Lance, it is not.

            Did I misunderstand what the Coach was trying to say?

            1. Cubus, When you have time check out my YouTube channel. This was the third interview we’ve done with Coach McEvoy and there’s a bunch of other film breakdowns and stuff on there that you might find interesting.

              The 5% was about the rotation (spiral vs wobbly) of the ball. The issue for Lance is that he’s not fully following through all of the way (full extension) and getting the necessary pronation of the wrist. If you snap it off early the ball will sail.

              There’s a lot that goes into the mechanics. You start with the legs and work your way up. One of the biggest issues for Lance is that he tends to not keep his hips at the same level throughout his drop. This causes his shoulders and head to move accordingly along with his target.

              This was something that I mentioned to Grant when we did our first film breakdown on Lance back in January, and was a point of emphasis that Coach talked about when we did our first interview with him back before the draft.

              Hope this helps.

      2. Exactly right, Jack.

        I am not saying Kyle never wants to do it, because he does. He just doesn’t want to have to lean on it like he has had to with Jimmy. I am sure you agree that it’s primarily Jimmy’s limitations that are the main reason why they do so much passing at or behind the LOS. It’s not what Kyle prefers to do, but any good OC takes advantage of his QB’s strengths, and like we saw in the postseason in 2019, stays away from his QB’s weakness’.

        Jimmy is pretty darn good at the quick game, I’ll give him that. And he tends to stand strong in the pocket when he needs to. But I hate to say it, he’s no longer the QB he was before he tore his ACL, and Jimmy’s limitations have absolutely come into focus for Kyle in 2019. And then we got – Jimmy Garoppolo – 2020 …. and that broke the camel’s back in Kyle’s eyes!

        I hope Jimmy understands that, unless he plays lights out, he’s going to be replaced at some time this season, but I have no problem rooting for him to play lights out. In my opinion, he’s got a lot to clean up before he gets to that point. He can start with cleaning up the “happy feet”, and throwing off of the wrong foot, and/or his poor weight distribution. He needs to be better at hitting his receivers in stride, because ball placement matters a lot. And he needs to be a better deep passer, and take advantage of those wide open intermediate to deep routes when Kyle has schemed them wide open, and they are there for the taking!

        1. If he does everything you listed then he will be Tom Brady. My point is we can’t expect too much more from him.

          A couple things with Garoppolo for this year …
          1.) No brace and making some of schedule plays
          2.) Playing with best offensive line
          3.) Playing with best receivers

      3. “The only problem with constantly throwing short is it allows the defense to play tighter to the line which makes things more congested for the run game.”

        I agree with that sentiment in principle. However, Jimmy G is not Alex Smith — he’s not averse to throwing deep, IMO. He has a serviceable arm for deep passes. My feeling is that Jimmy’s deep passing game has not developed sufficiently for various circumstantial reasons including:

        Both Pats’ and Kyle’s offense primarily use short- and intermediate-range passes, and the Pats’ offense relies heavily on using the middle of the field. So opportunities have been fewer and Jimmy G is yet to exceed 1000 pass attempts in the league.

        Jimmy has not had quality boundary receivers for most of this time with the Niners. He’s barely played with Aiyuk who can be a viable deep threat. Goodwin had speed but not much else.

        Finally, can’t have deep routes develop without 2.5+ second of pass pro which has been below average pretty much every year under Kyle. The latter may scheme receivers open, but the QB still must have time to throw. That kind of poor protection won’t help Lance, either. The alternative, frequently running out of the pocket for deep passes doesn’t seem to be a sustainable formula to me.

        I’d feel pretty good if Jimmy could consistently hit receivers outside the numbers over intermediate distances.

        1. Everything you are saying, good and bad, is accurate. The good part about all of this discussion is that it’s playing out on the field.

          Lance pushes the ball downfield more, and is more accurate deep.

          Garoppolo is better underneath and understanding situations. The biggest thing for him is that he needs to stop throwing interceptions to underneath defenders

  5. Hey Jack:

    rib had a question in the previous blog post and I responded as well. You can see that the links on the RHS of the page are still there, but the actual posts by Rib and myself and maybe others are gone. What happened?

          1. I brought up your reaction to Jimmy G’s 5 interceptions in one practice during 2019 training camp. I felt that you severely overreacted and we had a “discussion” about it. But forget that, can you answer my question above regarding Trey consistently throwing the ball high. Thanks.

  6. This is yet another solid list of burning questions, Jack. Bravo

    Burning question #1) This is the biggest question facing the team right now, and I promise Kyle is burning the midnight oil trying to figure it out. That said, I think he already knows exactly what he’s going to get from Jimmy Garoppolo this season. If Kyle’s losing any sleep right now, it’s over the question of how he can maximize Trey’s development now, and throughout the season. I’m hoping Kyle opens the playbook up for Trey a little bit more this week, and allow his dynamic young QB to dictate the way in which the Chargers attempt to defend him this week. I caught just a glimpse of “Trey’s offense” early on in training camp, but by all the reports, it sounds like Kyle has been allowing Trey to be Trey for the most part, a lot of misdirection, zone/reads, RPO’s and such, and I believe part of the goal of the preseason games is seeing how well these guys execute the plays they’ve been practicing in practice, but in a real game environment. I don’t like the idea of using the preseason games to work on plays that haven’t been a focus during practice (including training camp). I believe practice is the time to work on new stuff, or stuff guys aren’t as familiar with (because that’s what practice is for). Because if Trey starts during the regular season, it would behoove Kyle to cater the offense towards Trey’s strengths, putting together a simplified version of the offense early on, and then gradually expanding the game plan (and playbook) as the young phenom develops, and if Trey only plays on a situation basis, those zone/reads and designed QB runs are going to be a focus anyways, that’s the whole idea of using Trey strictly on a situational basis.

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