San Francisco 49ers: Thoughts on Their Impressive Preseason Opener

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San Francisco 49ers: Thoughts on Their Impressive Preseason Opener
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

To take a term from the great Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were."

The 49ers came out crisp and firing on all cylinders in their initial preseason game against the lowly Minnesota Vikings.

In reality it didn't look like the first game this team has played in over six months. Instead, San Francisco looked like a well-oiled machine. Alex Smith drove the offense down on an impressive opening drive that resulted in a beautiful fade pass to Brett Swain for a touchdown.

The 49ers running game was dominant all night long, and they destroyed Minnesota in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Of course you shouldn't take much from this game for a multitude of different reasons. First, it was played in August against what promises to be a bad football team in the form of the Vikings. Secondly, some of the best players for each team didn't suit up, and those who did played only a few snaps.

Still, it is great to see football back and the 49ers pick up where they left off after a surprising 2011 season.

Let's look at a couple things to take out of the 49ers' performance last night.

 

The Starting Offense

Alex Smith looked confident and poised leading the first-team offense down the field for a touchdown in his first and only drive. The small sample size, three attempts, doesn't do the QB justice.

Smith had that swagger and confidence you look for in a quarterback that is about to breakthrough big time.

Not only did Smith have a beautiful fade to Swain in the end zone, but he also did a solid job throwing a screen right into the blitz a couple plays before. Prior to 2011, Smith struggled a great deal in those situations and would either take a sack or commit a turnover.

One of the only real battles going on for a starting job in training camp, right guard, doesn't seem to be much of a competition at this point. Alex Boone absolutely dominated the trenches against what had been a strength of the Vikings' defense. He played with great pad level and opened up gaping holes between the hashes. If Boone can play like this throughout the season, the 49ers offensive line will be damn good in 2012.

All the way on the other end of the performance spectrum was Anthony Davis, who failed to impress.

The third-year offensive tackle committed an unprovoked false-start penalty and struggled maintaining the gap against outside rushers. This caused a couple of quarterback pressures in his short time on the field. Davis needs to improve a great deal if he is going to have the confidence of Smith and the rest of the offense.

Other than that, the 49ers' starting offensive line did much better than what I would have expected for the initial preseason game.

I was really impressed by the way both Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs ran, too. Of course it helps when your offensive line is opening up huge holes, but those two played really well.

Hunter didn't hesitate in the backfield, hitting holes incredibly quickly. As good as the Oklahoma State product was a rookie, dancing around in holes was somewhat of an issue.

Jacobs looked like the running back of four seasons ago. He seemed to possess more speed and a strong ability to get to the outside. I had noticed this in camp a great deal, but it was nice seeing it in real game action.

Moreover, it seems that Jacobs is going to be a primary reason why the 49ers' short-yardage offense will improve a great deal in 2012. He literally ran through the Vikings for first downs whenever he was asked to.

A great sign.

 

Starting Defense

Not impressed, to say the least.

The San Francisco starters gave up two scoring drives and struggled tackling a great deal in the run game.

The one long pass from Christian Ponder to Stephen Burton was a case of miscommunication in the secondary. That still does not explain or defend it. Dashon Goldson looked much more like the enigmatic 2010 performer than the way he played as a Pro Bowler last season. He failed to help Carlos Rogers over the top, laying the cornerback out to dry.

These types of situations and poor tackling are to be expected in the initial preseason game, though, so they're nothing to be too alarmed about.

Justin Smith didn't play, which left the door open for Ricky Jean-Francois to make an impact. The former seventh-round pick from Louisiana State looked extremely good in limited action, getting into the offensive backfield a couple of times.

Prior to leaving the game due to a bruised hip, Aldon Smith was his dominating self. The young pass-rusher completely ate Matt Kalil for dinner a couple times and was all over the field. He did, however, have that "deer in the headlights" look in coverage. Expect the 49ers coaching staff to work on that when Smith returns from what was a scary injury.

 

Backup Offense

A.J. Jenkins just looked natural on the football field, especially with his catch on the sideline in coverage on a pass from Colin Kaepernick.

He did, however, show a great deal of inconsistency. The 2012 first-round pick dropped a couple passes and shied away from the middle a great deal when 49ers quarterbacks were looking in his direction.

If Jenkins continues to drop passes, he will not be an immediate contributor as a rookie. Jim Harbaugh and company will not put up with that in the regular season.

That being said, you can definitely expect Jenkins to get a great deal of action in the final three preseason games.

LaMichael James struggled to an extent. He seemed indecisive behind the line of scrimmage at times. Other times, he failed to follow blockers between the hashes. This could have been first-game jitters, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the Oregon product. He did, though, have a couple nice runs that displayed the athletic ability that San Francisco fell in love with.

Despite a huge, 78-yard touchdown run, Kaepernick was just a bit too inconsistent. He didn't seem to possess the pocket awareness and field vision that is necessary to succeed in the National Football League.

The second-year quarterback struggled a great deal with timing and left receivers out to dry a couple times. These issues need to be fixed if the 49ers are going to rely on him to be Smith's primary backup heading into the regular year.

I was impressed with Kaepernick outside of the pocket and in terms of his accuracy, though. It seems that the 49ers did work on his mechanics a great deal during the offseason.

I can also envision the 49ers running some sort of option set at times in 2012 with Kaepernick and James in the backfield. That is something to take a look at as the preseason progresses.

Scott Tolzien was much more impressive.

He looked like a grizzled veteran out there, taking leadership in the huddle and putting the ball where it needed to be on a consistent basis. The Wisconsin product showed an ability to step up in the pocket and deliver the ball in the face of pressure. At this point, I would have to conclude he looked more like a No. 2 than Kaepernick.

Two rookies, Joe Looney and Jason Slowey, struggled at times along the offensive line. Neither was extremely impressive in pass protection and seemed to be a bit lost out there. Again, that could be first-game jitters.

2011 seventh-round pick Mike Person was horrible. He gave up pressure of Tolzien when the quarterback threw his only interception of the game.

Veteran Leonard Davis was damn good in limited action.

Nathan Palmer had an inconsistent night and didn't make any friends within 49ers brass with a dropped pass that would have turned into six.

One of the most impressive offensive players of the night was Chris Owusu, who showed tremendous yards-after-the-catch (YAC) ability. He is that type of receiver that seems to have oil all over his body, as opposing defenders continually whiffed on hm.

There remains a chance that the rookie from Stanford makes the 53-man roster. After all, the 49ers will not be able to hide him on the practice squad.

 

Backup Defense

This is where it gets interesting.

Perrish Cox was a major standout in this unit. He didn't just play solid man coverage; the Oklahoma State product was physical at the line and strong in nickel between the hashes.

Tim Ryan made a great point during the broadcast of the game. He talked about how Cox could play the nickel safety position. He has the size and aggressiveness to play this role to a T. If not, there is a chance that Cox ends up challenging Chris Culliver for the nickel corner spot. He has been this good during camp, and nothing changed in Friday's game.

I still have a hard time believing that Larry Grant didn't get any play on the open market as a starting inside linebacker. You cannot possibly tell me that there are 50-plus starting 'backers that are as good as Grant. He showed this once again on Friday against the Vikings.

This puts the 49ers in a great position, should either Patrick Willis is NaVorro Bowman miss some time.

One player that surprised me a great deal was journeyman linebacker Eric Baktiari, who recorded two sacks and was consistently in the Vikings backfield when he was in the game. Considering that Darius Fleming has been lost for the season and fellow rookie Cam Johnson has been limited, there could be room for this under-the-radar player on the 53. It will be interesting to see what he does in the remaining three preseason games.

Another player that stood out to me was rookie sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson. The physical safety actually impressed in limited action Friday. He seemed comfortable as the last line of defense in the secondary, continually finding himself around the ball.

San Francisco is definitely short a player or two at the safety position, so this could be a welcome help.

Darcel McBath, whom the 49ers picked up form the scrapheap a couple weeks ago, had a disastrous performance. He struggled a great deal in coverage and looked lost at times. This is worrisome, considering that he is a converted cornerback. I don't see him coming close to making the 53 when all is said and done.

On the other end of the spectrum, Demarcus Dobbs showed why the 49ers coaching staff is so high on him. He continually got leverage against opposing blockers, driving them into the offensive backfield nearly every snap.

What you don't see on the stat line is the fact that Dobbs creates angst for opposing quarterbacks, who see their pockets collapsing and have to react in a timely manner. This can cause the errant throw and interception.

 

Conclusion

Needless to say, the 49ers were pretty damn impressive in their initial preseason game against the Vikings. You don't see too many teams come out that crisp at this point in training camp. There are usually a ton of penalties and sloppy play. We actually had to wait until the latter part of the game to see that type of play from San Francisco.

This is a testament to the coaching staff and its ability to have the players ready.

One thing became abundantly clear on Friday: The 49ers are as deep as I have seen at any point during the last 15 seasons. They have talent up and down the roster, talent that is ready to make an impact come September.

That being said, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. This was the first preseason game, nothing more. The 49ers have a ton to work on before being ready to take on the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin in Week 1.

It is all about getting better each week, but this was a damn fine start, minus a few lackluster performances.

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