San Francisco 49ers vs Denver Broncos: Report Card Grades for Each 49ers Unit
It is preseason—nothing more and nothing less.
Of course the bigger story was the NFL debut of Levi's Stadium and all the tales and tidbits that surrounded this state-of-the-art facility.
We can save that topic of discussion for another time, shifting our focus on what actually transpired and how this second week of the preseason panned out for San Francisco.
In short, it was pretty bad. The 49ers have totaled a mere three points in eight total quarters thus far. Yes, it is just the preseason and San Francisco's first-team starters received limited, if any, snaps during the game.
But Gabbert's woes were just a part of the entire ineptitude on the part of San Francisco's crop of backup quarterbacks.
Gabbert, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson all committed turnovers during the game, while Denver's quarterbacks—led by Peyton Manning—were consistently able to push back the 49ers defense over the course of the game.
That defense has its own share of questions to answer too. Rookie Jimmie Ward struggled at times, and there were some missed opportunities in spite of some decent play by some of the other members of this particular unit.
Veteran safety Antoine Bethea also left the game with a concussion sustained in the second quarter but has indicated that he is doing well, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
San Francisco's depth players received the majority of playing time—expected during the preseason. While we cannot read too much into the final score, we do need to take an in-depth look at specifically what happened across the board.
Are there positives? Certainly there are, even if they may be hard to find.
If you were hoping to see just how Colin Kaepernick's development was going, August 17 was probably not the best source for a sample size.
Kaepernick was on the field for two drives, going 5 of 9 for 39 yards, per Janie McCauley of AP Sports (h/t CBS Sports).
He and the first-team offense weren't perfect, but Kaepernick nearly hooked up with offseason acquisition wideout Brandon Lloyd on what would have been a touchdown catch. That was perhaps as close as the 49ers got to finding the end zone.
After his two drives, San Francisco elected to put in No. 2 quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert received the majority of snaps under center throughout the duration of the game but suffered from many of the same problems he experienced earlier thus far in the preseason.
Gabbert improved his preseason completion percentage a bit, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, but the majority of his passes were intended for San Francisco's rookie receiver Bruce Ellington—mostly dump-offs, slants and checkdowns.
Blaine Gabbert's passer rating over two games against second-string defenses: 17.9— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 17, 2014
Gabbert's woes continued with an interception by Denver cornerback Tony Carter, whom Gabbert himself had to tackle.
Blaine Gabbert registers a tackle. You can probably guess how.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 17, 2014
The pass, which was intended for second-year wideout Quinton Patton, drew the attention of head coach Jim Harbaugh, who stated via Barrows:
I think [Patton] could have looked earlier. We're off. We're that kind of off right now. It's little. It's correctable. It shows up. That’s football. It punishes mistakes. Rewards execution and precision. And we’re off right now. We’re not a precise team. And we’re being punished for mistakes.
Gabbert was relieved by Josh Johnson, who could be vying for the backup job under center given Gabbert's struggles. But Johnson did nothing to help his case, committing his own turnover on a fumble during his first pass attempt.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson also committed an interception in the fourth quarter, adding to the problems currently being experienced by San Francisco's competing crop of backup quarterbacks.
Per Christian Gin of Examiner.com, Harbaugh stated the backup job will likely fall to whichever quarterback doesn't turn the ball over.
This unit as a whole looks pretty bad thus far and prompts plenty of discussion regarding how they can improve. If it weren't for Kaepernick having a moderately adequate day against Denver's first-team defense, the quarterback unit would have easily received a F for a grade.
We know the 49ers remain a run-first team and veteran Frank Gore will be a big part of that in what could very well be his final season in San Francisco.
Gore made his preseason debut against the Broncos and was on the field for three snaps at the beginning of the game, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. In all, he netted 12 yards on two carries.
One his first carry of preseasb, Frank Gore looks like Frank Gore. 9 yards. #49ers— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonESPN) August 17, 2014
Rookie Carlos Hyde took over on the first-team unit after Gore departed and saw a total of 11 snaps, per Maiocco.
Hyde didn't have the running impact that he enjoyed in the first week of preseason against Baltimore on August 7, but he did haul in a nine-yard reception from Colin Kaepernick, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Read into that what you wish, and we don't need to take too much stock in Hyde's limited contributions. Perhaps the 49ers are hiding his true impact until the regular season and not taking any chances on him thus far.
Like most aspects of the preseason, depth players are the ones who can benefit the most from the action on the field.
As expected, Jewel Hampton got the lion's share of touches during the game. The practice squad remains the likeliest of destinations for Hampton, who may still see plenty of carries throughout the remainder of the preseason.
But Hampton also did little to justify being kept on the 53-man roster by San Francisco. The same could be said of offseason acquisition Alfonso Smith.
#49ers RB Jewel Hampton stuffed at the Broncos 2-yard line on fourth down. The Broncos are one kneel down away from a 27-0 victory.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) August 17, 2014
San Francisco's ground attack on Sunday can basically be summed up by two words—nothing special. We likely know the roles assigned to both Gore and Hyde, but Hampton and Smith did little to justify being held onto by the 49ers following the preseason.
Aside from Gore and a little from Hyde, the running game was basically stuffed.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
We saw a little bit of what the 49ers' regular-season receiving corps may look like Sunday.
Michael Crabtree made his preseason debut after sitting out the 49ers' first game with a muscle strain, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. He was joined by Anquan Boldin, Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson before giving way to the rest of San Francisco's deep crop of receivers.
What might have turned into the biggest play of the game took place when Colin Kaepernick nearly found Lloyd on a 37-yard attempt down the right side. The ball sailed just off Lloyd's fingertips and would have been a touchdown has the reception happened.
Colin @Kaepernick7 hit as he attempted 37-yard deep ball to Brandon Lloyd. Pass just off Lloyd's fingers. Dawson misses 55-yard FG.— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 17, 2014
Close, but no cigar.
Still, it was nice to see the 49ers offense try for the home run pass on a third-down situation there, so we can take that away at least.
Quinton Patton led all San Francisco receivers with 30 snaps on Sunday, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
That number draws a little curiosity surrounding a player who most likely secures a roster spot, but given how crowded this position is, it is impossible to guarantee anything.
Perhaps the 49ers know how they want to formulate their top four receivers. Patton likely isn't on the fringe, but maybe San Francisco is trying to work him into various situations and formations given how much time he missed due to injury last season.
It's too early to speculate much more beyond that.
The rest of the 49ers receivers didn't offer much at all.
We did see a nice reception from second-year tight end Vance McDonald from Kaepernick, which hopefully indicates that McDonald is progressing from a relatively lackluster rookie season in 2013.
Kevin Greene also hauled in a 48-yard pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson late in the game, which wound up being the 49ers' longest offensive play during the game. However, the pass was deflected and should have been intercepted, per Barrows, so we can't read too much into that.
The first-teamers get a bit of a pass in this one and are assisted by Lloyd and McDonald's efforts to some extent. But nobody else showed up and it hurt.
San Francisco's offensive line was neither bad or good on Sunday. On one hand, it was again nice to see the left side of the line looking solid with tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati each getting 16 reps to start the game, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
#49ers offensive line, from left to right: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney and Jonathan Martin.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) August 17, 2014
Joe Looney, the favorite to start if Alex Boone's holdout lasts any longer, also saw 16 snaps. Jonathan Martin saw 32.
The left side of the line should have zero problems or question marks associated. At center, Daniel Kilgore remains the clear favorite to start in Week 1 of the regular season, per Maiocco.
Kilgore has had his moments, but there isn't much to suggest that he is in any danger of losing his starting job.
Kaepernick took a pop after that third-down incompletion. Center Daniel Kilgore's man got free up the middle.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 17, 2014
But the right side of the line begs plenty of questions.
We don't need to go into too much detail surrounding Boone's holdout. But it is safe to say that it needs to end soon.
This is the argument made by Kevin Lynch of SF Gate, who writes:
Clearly the 49ers’ second-team offensive line is playing poorly. The right side of the line with guard Joe Looney and tackle Jonathan Martin is struggling. The Alex Boone holdout cannot end soon enough and right tackle Anthony Davis is supposed to be ready for the regular season. Nevertheless, Looney and Martin are two players who could get playing time this season.
Martin will likely start the season as a backup on the outside if Anthony Davis returns to action as Lynch suggests. Looney may actually be the starter pending what transpires with Boone and his contract.
What is clear is this—the right side of the line needs help, which may force the 49ers' hand when it comes to contract negotiations with Boone.
It is worth noting that veteran backup Adam Snyder played 16 snaps during the game, thwarting any major concern over his injury from a week ago.
Overall, the 49ers backups along the O-line need some help. The starters are guaranteed for the most part, but depth players certainly raise some concerns.
The 49ers defensive line remains thin after the return of likely starters Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ian Williams from respective injuries.
None of those three played on Sunday, which opened the door for some of the depth players along the D-line to have some impact.
Two of these 49ers certainly impressed against the Broncos—nose tackle Quinton Dial and defensive end Tank Carradine.
Carradine and Dial each were on the field for over 50 snaps—per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—leading all 49ers on defense.
In determining Carradine's role with the 49ers in the upcoming season, it is promising to see this physical, 6'4", 276-pound specimen using his speed to create pressure in pass-rushing situations. Dial helped him do this from time to time against the Broncos.
Tank Carradine has a near sack. Had one last week as well. Really good working with his hands to find off pass pro— Kevin Lynch (@klynch49) August 17, 2014
With Smith and McDonald sidelined, we got to see a lot of Carradine. This is important considering that Carradine will likely be the primary backup to both players during the regular season. If he can continue his strong surge, the 49ers defensive front will be that much better off.
#49ers DL Tank Carradine continues to impress in pass rush situations. MAJOR mismatch vs OGs in pass pro. Just too quick— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) August 18, 2014
Dial is also making a strong case to be considered for the starting nose tackle job. With Williams sidelined, Dial received the majority of reps at defensive tackle. He continues to have a strong preseason, which indicates he is fully recovered from the toe injury that hindered him last year.
These two players certainly left their impact on this particular unit in a positive fashion. James Brady of Niners Nation highlights this by writing:
When you see guys like Quinton Dialand Tank Carradine making tackles for loss, that's them individually making an impact. Dial cut through the interior of Denver's line on multiple occasions, and Carradine was the primary beneficiary. Carradine used a couple nice pass-rushing moves which shows progress and, of course, it's great to see him healthy. I'm not ready to anoint either of them starters, but it's great to see.
All of this matters because we know how the 49ers like to rush no more than four defenders up front. If they can continuously generate pressure, especially relying on guys like Carradine and Dial, the D-line should not suffer any sort of drawback.
Dial, Purcell and Carradine all with nice plays on that drive against Broncos’ second unit.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 17, 2014
Fortunately, the defensive line was one of the positives from Sunday's game. Unfortunately, it was one of only a handful of promising takeaways, and the defense needs to figure out how to stop runs up the middle.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith made his preseason debut on Sunday and looked solid.
The 49ers figure to be without him for a lengthy portion of the season depending on how long his NFL-mandated suspension lasts. That opens the door for depth players like Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch to step into the fray.
Lemonier led all 49ers OLBs with 43 snaps, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. The second-year pass-rusher figures to be the prominent guy to replace Smith during his suspension and had some decent moments if not all too inspiring.
C.J. Anderson with a quick lateral cut to evade Corey Lemonier— Kevin Lynch (@klynch49) August 17, 2014
Rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch also saw some significant playing time on the outside, but a costly offsides penalty negated a would-be interception by rookie cornerback Kenneth Acker.
Jim Tomsula giving Aaron Lynch the business for that offsides that erased Kenneth Acker’s interception.— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) August 17, 2014
With NaVorro Bowman obviously out and Patrick Willis not playing, inside linebacker duties fell largely upon the shoulders of Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland and Nick Moody.
James Brady of Niners Nation describes Wilhoite's impact during the game:
Wilhoite looked about as good as expected, too. He wasn't perfect, but he did keep most plays in front of him and made the stops you want a backup linebacker to make. He's not going to take that perfect angle and blow up a play in the backfield like Bowman might, but he'll get his man and that's what matters. Seeing him as a tackling machine once again was a promising sign.
Borland also saw plenty of work, and the 49ers figure to be closely evaluating him while they determine the final depth chart of the inside linebacker position in consideration of Bowman's recovery.
From observations, Borland is still a ways behind Wilhoite, but at least he had some decent moments in coverage during the course of the game.
Overall, the linebacker corps was okay in some areas while being poor in others.
It has been a long-standing strength of the 49ers and will need to be heavily relied upon during the upcoming season again.
Rookie cornerback Kenneth Acker may very well be the primary beneficiary of the 49ers' loss to the Broncos on Sunday.
In short, his play was stellar. He was all over the field during his 25 snaps and contributed largely in pass coverage throughout his time on the field.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation goes into further detail:
All that being said, one standout in the secondary was Kenneth Acker. He should have had a pick, but Aaron Lynch's head was offsides. He was all over the field, breaking up passes. The only time anybody found real significant success against him required offensive pass interference for a touchdown that was called back.
He also batted down a pass in the end zone and drew an offensive pass interference penalty, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Kenneth Acker shined with a +2.4 grade. Allowed only one catch for five yards, one PBU, drew an OPI call, and had an INT negated by penalty.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) August 18, 2014
Acker may still be a long shot to make the final 53-man roster, but this type of performance is impressive considering some of the competition he is up against. With players like Tramaine Brock and Chris Cook sidelined, Acker does have a chance to increase his stock.
One player who did not particularly perform well was fellow rookie Dontae Johnson. He struggled with ball location, typical for a rookie defensive back, but this is something that will need to be shored up if he hopes to climb up the depth chart.
The 49ers' first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward also had an ominous start to the game. He was burned by a Peyton Manning pass to slot receiver Wes Welker but rebounded nicely. Ward finished the game with a team-high seven tackles, per Barrows.
Another storyline worthy of note is the departure of veteran safety Antoine Bethea after suffering a second-quarter concussion.
Bethea has stated that he is doing well post-concussion, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, but he will have to go through the NFL's protocols regarding concussion recovery before making his way back onto the field. Maiocco does state that Bethea is expected to be ready by the regular-season opener on September 7 against the Dallas Cowboys.
I'm doing well and I appreciate all of the concern!!— Antoine Bethea (@ABethea24) August 18, 2014
The 49ers are hoping this unit is one of strength entering the upcoming season. Like many others, they had some moments of promise but also suffered from some mental lapses. These will certainly have to be shored up in coming weeks.
Veteran kicker Phil Dawson was the lone setback in what was a relatively promising performance by the 49ers special teams unit.
Dawson missed two field goals, which obviously means little during the preseason, but it is something to worry about.
We can remember though that Dawson missed a 44-yard attempt in the preseason opener at Candlestick Park a year ago, before setting a franchise record of 27 straight thereafter.
#49ers Phil Dawson, so money last year, 0-2 at Levi’s. Will be a storyline early in season if he struggles at home.— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonESPN) August 17, 2014
Let's keep an eye on that when San Francisco hosts the San Diego Chargers at Levi's Stadium in the third week of the preseason.
On the positive side, punters Andy Lee and Colton Schmidt looked solid throughout the game, averaging more than 50 yards per punt.
Returners Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton looked solid too, with Ellington starting to emerge as the potential favorite to take over the duties from LaMichael James, if that indeed happens.
From a results-based perspective, San Francisco's coaching staff should receive an F-minus grade if such a thing existed.
Look at it from a statistical standpoint.
Being shut out in a stadium-debut home opener is a pretty rough mark against, regardless of whether or not it is the preseason.
San Francisco totaled a mere 230 yards on offense during the game. Should we be firing up the Greg Roman conversation again?
What blame should be placed on head coach Jim Harbaugh?
We could take away a few thoughts before throwing each of these guys under the bus. Coaching staffs—especially the 49ers staff—typically do not want to reveal too much during the preseason. It is worth predicting that San Francisco is holding a lot back when it comes to actual execution.
This is evident by the total number of snaps from the 49ers starters, especially considering the large quantity of first-team players absent from the field Sunday.
Still, we should be concerned to a certain extent.
Harbaugh reiterated after the game that the team isn't quite jelling the way it should be. He stated so via Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News:
[We’re] going to get better. It’s going to be an important week for us. This will be a big week. We need improvement. And we need to make decisions on who to play. We’re not going to keep experimenting. We need to tighten this down fast. It’s off. It’s off right now. Definitely off in little correctable ways. That’s what I see. Feel like we can get it corrected.
Jim Harbaugh post-game transcript: "It's off. It's off right now." http://t.co/9XXJQpi1S0— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) August 18, 2014
Looking at the results alone, the word "off" may be a bit of an understatement. True, we can't read too much into preseason stats, but the overall body of work leaves more than plenty to be desired.
Of course there is the argument against worrying too much. Kevin Lynch of SF Gate writes:
Harbaugh can complain all he wants, but he basically treats preseason games like another practice. He doesn’t rest players much before the games and when the team is injured, like it is now, that can be magnify the 49ers’ poor play. The 49ers substitute early and simply don’t play their starters if there’s even a hint of injury. On defense, the entire starting defensive line sat, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman did not play, and neither did cornerback Tramaine Brock. Also, the 49ers defensive line played a style that takes time to learn.
But evaluating this performance by the 49ers coaching staff without the context of the preseason is a pretty ugly thing to do.
The coaching staff looked out of sync with everything it was trying to execute. The results speak for themselves.
Given the final score and results, it would be easy to assign an F grade to this performance and there wouldn't be too much argument against it.
As a whole, judging specifically by the criteria, the lowest of low scores is justifiable.
But let's try to keep some positives at the forefront of our focus and not remove ourselves too far from the context of the situation. We saw very little from the 49ers' first-team unit—the unit that makes up what should be considered an elite team.
We also know the preseason is the chance to experiment with various formations, packages and the like. It is totally possible San Francisco is using these games to try out some of these elements in detail. We can't expect the 49ers to be coming out "full throttle" in any sense of the term.
More importantly, this period is giving the coaching staff time to observe and develop players who are not necessarily locked into a specific role.
When factoring all of this into our perspective, there were a number of positive takeaways in spite of the dreadful results. We can't ignore the problems, but we shouldn't speculate the 49ers' 2014 season will be a disaster either.
It was a bad preseason game no matter how one slices it. But good things can come from bad games and this is unquestionably what the 49ers will build upon.
All statistics and accolades courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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