Thoughts on 49ers' 2012 Preseason Debut vs. Hapless Minnesota Vikings

Michael ErlerCorrespondent IAugust 11, 2012

49ers fans will be holding their collective breaths, hoping that Smith's hip injury isn't serious.
49ers fans will be holding their collective breaths, hoping that Smith's hip injury isn't serious.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Obviously the most, perhaps only, meaningful aspect of the exhibition season opener was the injury to second-year phenom Aldon Smith, which the 49ers announced was a “bruised hip.”

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the accuracy of the team’s injury reports, but it’s worth noting that not only did Smith require a cart to make it to the locker room, but he was spotted by reporters using two canes to limp out of there.

I could be wrong. I’d love to be wrong in fact, because even though I’m not a 49ers fan per se, I have nothing against any of the players (well, maybe a couple) and you never wish injury on anyone. 

It can certainly be argued—actually, let me go ahead and argue it—that Smith is the player the 49ers' defense could least afford to lose to a serious injury, with the exception of Justin Smith.

Obviously Aldon’s not the defense’s best player, he’s not even in the top three. But the 49ers have an excellent backup inside linebacker in Larry Grant as insurance in case Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman go down.

They have some depth at corner too.

One could make a case for Dashon Goldson, I suppose, as being irreplaceable given the team’s lack of depth at safety, but honestly if the front office and coaching staff felt that way, they would’ve maybe offered the guy a long-term contract instead of just franchising him, no? 

(For the record, I absolutely agreed with the team’s decision to franchise Goldson. He wanted Eric Weddle-money, when Weddle himself wasn’t worth Eric Weddle-money. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Make Goldson prove he can be consistent first. Remember, he was a gasoline fire in 2010.) 

Speaking of 2010, if you’re curious what the 49ers pass rush might look like without Aldon Smith, just take a gander at some of those 2010 box scores.

You can believe in the wonder and the magic of Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown and the safeties if you like. Without a pass rush, this secondary will be toast.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think Parys Haralson, Cam Johnson and Eric Bakhtiari can replace Smith’s production off the edge. 

Hopefully the injury isn’t serious. On the CBS broadcast (ugh), analyst Tim Ryan, a former defensive end, speculated that he thought it was a hip-pointer and while that injury is tremendously painful at the offset, it typically lasts only a couple of weeks. I think that’s the best case scenario, no?

The positive is that Smith is very young and reportedly, a quick healer. He did recover fast from being stabbed at his house party in the offseason, you’ll recall. 

The 49ers can survive without Smith for a while. Even for a few regular season games if they must. But if this is the dreaded season-ending kind of injury (again, there’s no evidence at all that it is, we’re just talking hypotheticals here), then I’m afraid it quite literally would be a season-ender for the team as well.

I just can’t fathom them being a championship contender without the kid. Sorry, but it’s true. He’s one of four guys they can’t lose to a serious injury, and three of them are surnamed Smith. Mmm.. okay, five guys. I’ll throw in Joe Staley. 

So, aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play? 

We must start with a golf clap for Michael Crabtree, who finally took part in a preseason game for the first time in 13 opportunities.

Crabtree also had his first ever preseason reception, albeit for three yards, matching his production from last season’s NFC title game. So congratulations to him for breaking a tie with you, me, and 99.999999% of the known universe in preseason receptions. Kudos! 

Crabtree saw scant field time as the first-string offense only played the one series, but all in all it’s hard to complain about Alex Smith and the fellas since they produced a touchdown in their only opportunity.

Most of the work was done on the ground by the likes of Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright, who got more carries in this one game than he’s likely to have in the entirety of the 2012 regular season.

The blocking was superb throughout, especially from fullback Bruce Miller and Mike Iupati. Alex Boone did indeed start at right guard and held up quite well, but really it’s hard to notice a guard unless he’s Larry Allen on the Cowboys-level dominant or Chilo Rachal-level awful.

Alex Smith was 3-of-3 for 16 yards on the drive, including a 4-yard fade in the end zone to… wait for it… Brett Swain, who played as many snaps (four) in the opening series as Randy Moss and four more, interestingly enough, than Mario Manningham.

One of those four gentlemen probably won’t make the 53-man roster.

I don’t think it would be hyperbolic at all to suggest that this was the finest preseason performance of Smith’s career, all things considered. It doesn’t mean anything, of course, but considering that he was staring out of his ear-hole a year ago against a frothing-at-the-mouth Saints team in their preseason opener, it is a remarkable and welcome contrast.

Smith looks confident and assured, like he belongs. Never really saw him air anything out, but I wasn’t expecting to at this point. 

The second series for the 49ers, in which Colin Kaepernick replaced Smith, was brief but equally as successful, as San Francisco caught the Vikes off-guard by going no-huddle and “the Kapper” took a read-option play (like the kind Vince Young used to run all the time) 78-yards to the house. He kind of reminded me of Usain Bolt, in that he’s a big galloot who once he gets going, you’re not going to catch him from behind.

Oh, and I was absolutely floored that a coaching staff with Mike Singletary on it was unprepared for a wrinkle by the opposition. 

Aside from that touchdown run though, I was honestly a bit underwhelmed by Kaepernick. He wasn’t nearly as bad as last preseason, but just… meh.

He still looks skittish in the pocket and uncomfortable if his first option isn’t open, looking to run rather than to move on with his progression. He almost threw a pick because he threw way too late to rookie A.J. Jenkins. His windup is shorter than it was last year, but still longer than ideal. The accuracy is also wonky, due in part to a sidearm delivery and in part that he always seems to be on the run when he’s throwing.

The kid is reminiscent of a young Randall Cunningham. Cunningham happens to be my favorite player of all time, and as you may know, he wound up being pretty good eventually, so fans need to have patience with Kaepernick. 

That being said, if Alex Smith were to go down tomorrow, it sure looks to me that Scott Tolzien is the guy I’d trust the most to take the field.

Tolzien, an undrafted rookie whom the 49ers acquired off waivers from San Diego right before the regular season started last year after he impressed in a preseason game vs. San Francisco, looks very comfortable under center, his drops are smooth, he’s got nice zip on intermediate-range passes, and he does a nice job of reading the blitz.

His best trait though has to be his accuracy. Every pass seems to hit his target in the hands.

Tolzien made a number of impressive throws, completing 10-of-13 passes for 84 yards, but to me his most impressive one wasn’t even a completion.

He read a safety blitz up the gut and made the proper read on a 15-yard pass to rookie receiver Nathan Palmer along the right sideline and Palmer, who was all alone, flat out dropped the ball. Tolzien also suffered an interception in the red zone, though it wasn’t really his fault as his arm got hit while he was throwing a pass. 

It will be interesting to see what happens with Tolzien if he continues to play well in the preseason.

Obviously, Kaepernick isn’t going anywhere, but would Harbaugh really cut Josh Johnson, the first quarterback he ever had as a head coach (at the University of San Diego) and someone he’s always gone out of his way to praise, after the 49ers signed Johnson as a free agent in the off-season?

Harbaugh has insisted, as all coaches do, that the best 53 will make the team, but the football politics involved here are quite intriguing.

Would the undrafted free agent really make the team over the coach’s pet? Would the undrafted free agent really win the No. 2 job over the “future franchise quarterback?”

Of course there’s a chance the team could keep all four guys, but that’s not the way to bet. To be fair to Johnson, he didn’t really get much of a chance, checking into the game with only eight minutes to go, to show what he can do, but I’ll be very curious to see what happens if Tolzien continues to play well.

If the 49ers let him go I can think of quite a few teams who would (or should) snap him up. Hell, he can start in Arizona now.

The other guy on offense that stood out to me was Brandon Jacobs, whose 49ers debut was outstanding. Jacobs ran for a first down on all four of his carries in the game, including a 23-yard gallop along the right sideline on 4th-and-1 from the 49ers own 47-yard-line in the first quarter.

This is precisely the role he was signed for and considering what an eyesore this offense was on third down and in the red zone last year, having a guy like Jacobs to cash in all the third-and-shorts would be huge.

Almost as huge as Jacobs himself, who looks humongous to me, even though he claims he’s lost weight.

Rookies A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James, Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer, Joe Looney and Jason Slowey all saw their first action as 49ers as well, to varying degrees of success, so lets get into them briefly.

Jenkins looked very much like the guy we’ve been seeing in camp, in that he showed some smooth route running skills but also inconsistent hands.

Actually, he dropped two easy passes and caught his two toughest chances. He had to reach along the sideline to haul in a mid-range pass from Kaepernick (Kap’s best pass of the night since he put it in a spot, away from the defense, where only his guy could get it), and also caught a short slant from Tolzien that was thrown behind him (a rare inaccurate offering from Tolzien). Still, nothing too much to read into either way. 

To give you an idea of how much Jim Harbaugh valued the opening preseason game, Anthony Dixon got 12 carries and Cartwright had another eight. James, meanwhile, had three. Seems Harbaugh is gonna hide Darren Sproles Jr. as much as he can. 

Owusu is a guy that surprised some folks. He definitely has an NFL body, and its eerie how much he looked like a young T.O. out there, due in part of course to his uniform number.

Owusu didn’t get drafted because everybody assumes he’s one more hit from being done because of his extensive concussion history. I know a couple of reporters who are very fearful for him, actually. 

We haven’t heard much of anything about Owusu in camp, as he’s gotten lost in the receiver shuffle.

There is the daily Crabtree Injury Update, the daily "How Is Moss Looking? Update," the daily "How Many Balls Did Jenkins Drop Today and Did Harbaugh Blow His Mind When a Reporter Brought It Up?" Update, and the daily "What A Great Story Kyle Williams Is" Update.

We haven’t heard much from Mario Manningham either, come to think about it, and it’s been Nathan Palmer, not Owusu, who’s been the focus of "Undrafted Rookie Turning Heads" stories.

I’ve long suspected that Harbaugh and his staff was trying to pull the okie-doke with Owusu and Palmer, promoting the latter front and center to hide the former.

Harbaugh personally coached Owusu and still keeps tabs with the Cardinal coaching staff, so it’s not like he doesn’t know what he has there.

If you recall, the team did something similar last season with Joe Hastings, who hardly played at all during the preseason but nonetheless made the practice squad (and later, once Braylon Edwards was cut, the active roster) over a number of guys who had more playing time in the preseason like Dominique Zeigler and Lance Long.

These days the notion of the 49ers thinking they’d have to “hide” Joe freakin’ Hastings to keep him from those prying vultures on the waiver wire seems laughable, but it is indeed what they did. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, an excellent reporter, insisted in hindsight that Hastings looked good in camp, but he never stood out to me at all.

I honesty thought he was like the 10th receiver on the team last year. 

Anyway, Owusu, a ghost in camp, caught three passes in this game, flashed some impressive YAC ability and just looked like he belonged out there.

If you asked a casual fan who was the first round pick and who who the undrafted free agents were between he, Jenkins, and Palmer, I doubt many would’ve correctly guessed Jenkins.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Owusu gets buried after this game and hardly gets any playing time at all going forward in the hope that they can stash him on the practice squad, but it’s still a long shot. Maybe if they throw a rumor out there that he had a headache after some practice? 

Palmer, meanwhile, looked alright. He did have that one bad drop, but I need to “collect more data points,” as Harbs is fond of saying. Looney and Slowey? Give me a couple weeks on them too, if you can.

The one offensive line observation I can give you is that second-year man Mike Person, whom the team drafted out of Montana State last year ostensibly to be a backup right tackle or maybe a guard, is overmatched as a left tackle. It was Person who allowed Tolzien to be hit as he was throwing for the interception.

Person played left tackle in college but does not have the feet to play it in the pros. I never heard general manager Trent Baalke, at any time, mention that Person had the capability to play the left side at this level when he was drafted, so it was surprising to see Harbaugh trot him out there tonight.

Granted, Boone, the nominal backup to Staley, is now the starting right guard, but still. My guess is that if Staley goes down, Boone replaces him in the games that count and Leonard Davis moves to right guard. Person may still make the team as a third tackle (who’s actually a fourth tackle) but doesn’t figure to dress on game days. 

Not nearly as much to offer you about the defense, and by now, you’re bored and wondering how much longer this will last anyway.

This just in: The 49ers can still stop the run. The first stringers mostly looked like they were bored in the two series they played and as is their wont, only got serious once the Vikings entered the red zone.

Carlos Rogers and Dashon Goldson had a miscommunication on the opening series that led to a 52-yard drive, which seems curious since the team was playing so vanilla and not some exotic coverage. Aldon Smith did have a couple of nice pressures before suffering his injury. 

Backups of note included Parrish Cox, who has the team made as the fourth corner. He had a diving interception late in the game on a pass from McLeod Bethel-Johnson who, according to the Vikings coaching staff is one of the best 96 professional quarterbacks in the world.

Cox brings a physical presence that is rare for a backup corner, which is always welcome. 

Rookie safety Trenton Robinson had a good hit too, while his competition for a backup job, Darcel McBath, did not help himself tonight. I did not notice Colin Jones or Mark LeGree. 

The standout along the defensive line was, like last preseason, Demarcus Dobbs, who looks a bit weird out there in his No. 40 jersey now that he’s the third tight end.

Dobbs played mostly right end and got a ton of pressure, forcing Joe Webb to scramble for his life time and again. I believe Dobbs pretty much has a job locked up and his versatility in being able to play both ways will save the team a roster spot which will help guys like Person, Williams, et al.

Matthew Masifilo, another Stanford kid, had a strip on a run, but the Vikes recovered the fumble.

Tony Jerod-Eddie, from Texas A&M, the biggest “name” among the undrafted free agent defenders, did not stand out to me, and neither did Patrick Butrym. Justin Smith, who I’m pretty confident will make the team, did not suit up, nor did Will Tukuafu, whose situation is a bit more tenuous. 

Among the linebackers Eric Bakhtiari, another guy Harbaugh coached at USD, was the standout with two sacks, dominating the backup Vikings right tackle.

With Darius Fleming suffering an ACL injury in rookie camp, it opened the door for a guy like Bakhtiari to win a job as the fourth outside linebacker, though 7th-round pick Cam Johnson is still the favorite there. 

I was a bit surprised that Parys Haralson looked so fluid and natural playing some snaps from the left side after playing from the right virtually his entire 49ers career, so credit to him there.

Also, I think Kourtnei Brown, another undrafted rookie from Clemson (who also has a shot for the fourth OLB job) deserves a nod for keeping his head on a play he was credited a sack for, when he forced Webb out of bounds.

Webb slowed up, looking to goad the rookie into a personal foul for tackling out of bounds, and many young defenders would’ve taken the bait, looking for the kill shot to impress the coaching staff. Brown wisely laid off and let Webb simply run out of bounds. Smart play.

Finally, the special teams. LaMichael James took his first kickoff return, eight yards deep into the end zone, and returned it to the 15.

You’d think that would’ve been a lesson to him, but a teammate had to scream at him from doing it again on the next attempt.

Full of confidence, that James.

Kyle Williams, meanwhile, fielded three punts without incident, hopefully vanquishing some demons along the way.

He returned two of them, averaging 14 yards a pop. I think he may have watched a few too many hurdles highlights during the Olympics though.


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