San Francisco 49ers: Should We Worry Halfway Through 2014 Preseason?

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San Francisco 49ers: Should We Worry Halfway Through 2014 Preseason?
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Head coach Jim Harbaugh cannot be impressed with the 49ers' first two preseason losses in 2014.

The San Francisco 49ers have scored a total of three points in eight total quarters of preseason football thus far.

Let that number sink in for just a moment—three points.

OK, so we might give a mulligan to the team's first preseason loss in Baltimore, which saw the 49ers defeated by John Harbaugh's Ravens 23-3. 

But the disastrous 34-0 shutout at the hands of the visiting Denver Broncos on August 17 was a complete embarrassment, especially when considering the debut of the 49ers' brand-new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

What went wrong?

In short, almost everything. San Francisco could hardly muster any offensive momentum against a much-improved Denver defense. Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked shaky like he did against Baltimore just over a week ago, and the power run game never got up to speed.

On defense, San Francisco struggled to stop the run up the middle. Aside from the efforts from rookie Kenneth Acker, and some from fellow rookie Jimmie Ward, the 49ers secondary was equally unimpressive.

In all, San Francisco totaled a mere 230 yards on offense while allowing 357 yards to the Broncos. Denver forced four turnovers while committing zero of its own. The 49ers also lost the time-of-possession battle—27 minutes, three seconds compared to 32:57.

Where are the bright spots? Are there any?

More importantly, is this the sort of thing we should expect moving forward?

 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Many veterans, like defensive end Justin Smith, have yet to take the field in a preseason game.

The Context of the Preseason

Let's hold on just a moment. The 49ers are not going to go 0-16 in the 2014 season. They are not going to experience drubbings like they did at the hands of the Broncos on a frequent basis.

First off, it's the preseason. One cannot look too deeply into preseason games and their attached meanings. Many teams, including Jim Harbaugh's 49ers, rarely play their starters for more than just a handful of drives. 

Looking at the total number of snaps from CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, we can ascertain that the bulk of work was given to San Francisco's backups and depth players. Essentially, the coaching staff treats these types of games as real-world practices and little more.

But these games do matter to some degree. For many players, especially those on the roster bubble, preseason reps are precious commodities. Either making the final 53-man roster or being left off it altogether may be entirely contingent on an individual's performance during such games.

This can often leave the cohesiveness of a team or unit in flux. We know the story, and it makes some sense.

In comparison, San Francisco's starters and first-team players are what make this team elite. Many of these players saw little time, or none at all, per Maiocco.

Let's look at the defensive line as a perfect example. Both defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were out despite being activated prior to the game. Nose tackle Ian Williams has also returned from an injury, but he did not play either.

That left the bulk of work to young players like Tank Carradine, Nick Moody and Quinton Dial. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Tank Carradine has seen a lot of action thus far in the preseason.

San Francisco was in nickel defense for much of the game, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. As a result, Carradine's and Dial's snap counts were high—57 and 55, respectively.

Carradine will obviously not get that number of snaps come the regular season with Smith and McDonald slated to start. Dial should expect to be spelled by Williams and Purcell from time to time too. Instead, giving these players added work is nothing more than an evaluation.

The same could be said about the rest of the team's units.

 

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Offensive guard Joe Looney is forced to handle the work in Alex Boone's absence.

Legitimate Areas of Concern

Without proclaiming mercy, there are a few aspects to the 49ers' recent performances that raise some serious questions.

Chief among them has to be the right side of San Francisco's offensive line. Gabbert will get his shots in just a bit.

In short, the right side of the O-line needs help. Offseason acquisition Jonathan Martin is struggling in his first season with the 49ers, per Kevin Lynch of SF Gate. Despite some strong camp performances, right guard Joe Looney did not play up to standard either.

In Martin's case, we should expect him to take over the backup role at either tackle once Week 1 of the regular season commences on September 7. Anthony Davis is the presumed starter and should be ready by that time, per Lynch, so Martin's issues are not an overwhelming concern.

But Looney's issues at guard could easily be magnified if the Alex Boone contract holdout continues for much longer.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Alex Boone's contractual disputes have become a more pressing issue.

Both Boone and the 49ers remain far apart in contractual discussions, per Maiocco, but the situation along the right side of the line may easily be the deciding factor in whether or not the team breaks with its precedent of not offering contracts to players until they physically report.

The issue's seriousness has become much more paramount.

USA TODAY Sports
Blaine Gabbert has drawn much of the negative attention surrounding the 49ers' preseason thus far.

One may also consider the backup quarterback situation almost as precarious. Gabbert's ineffectiveness has been more than apparent in his first two games with San Francisco. 

He completed eight passes on 14 attempts—most of which were intended for rookie wideout Bruce Ellington—netting only 40 yards and averaging 2.9 yards per completion. He turned the ball over once as well.

His replacement, veteran quarterback Josh Johnson, fared little better. He and McLeod Bethel-Thompson also committed costly turnovers.

All of this lends to the discussion that Gabbert's job is in jeopardy. But unless another backup truly brings his game up to the next level, Gabbert's future is relatively safe.

Bill Williamson of ESPN goes into further detail:

I still think Gabbert is going to be the backup to Colin Kaepernick. He is guaranteed $2 million this season. That’s a lot to eat for a backup. Yes, Gabbert looked lost in the first preseason game at Baltimore and he was not good in three seasons with Jacksonville. But unless he is totally awful in the rest of the preseason, I think we will see him on the 53-man roster. 

Gabbert may very well be the whipping boy of the 49ers' preseason thus far, and perhaps that moniker is deserved. But we must remind ourselves that he is nothing more than a backup and insurance policy to Kaepernick.

There is little need to argue about the effectiveness of a quarterback who (knock on wood) sees almost zero time during the regular season.

Lastly, we should always be concerned about depth and injury. Gabbert falls into this of course, but some of the other problematic areas should draw our attention.

San Francisco's wide receiver group is pretty well stacked, so an injury or two there would not be as disastrous as it was a year ago at this time. The D-line looks pretty deep too with Carradine and Dial showing promise.

But as mentioned, the O-line backups haven't looked particularly good. An injury or two to this unit could be more than problematic during the regular season. We could run into a similar scenario in the secondary as well.

Most NFL contenders face this dilemma, however, so it's not like we should be pulling our hair out if the backups are not necessarily providing confidence.

 

USA TODAY Sports
Linebacker Michael Wilhoite has done an amicable job filling in for NaVorro Bowman thus far.

Reasons Not to Worry

Again, it is preseason football. The 49ers are certainly a team that does not want to reveal its true plans until the time actually matters. This is practice football and little more.

Maiocco provides a half-joking assessment about how the 49ers can get blown out during every game of the regular season. He writes:

The 49ers almost certainly will get blown out of any game in the regular season in which...

—Colin Kaepernick plays two possessions. 
—Frank Gore touches the ball twice. 
—Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis combine for one reception. 
—No starters on the defensive line suit up. 
Patrick Willis’ on-field contributions are limited entirely to his pregame speech. 
—And their best cornerback, Tramaine Brock, does not play, either.

If all those things happen, the 49ers simply will not be able to compete against any team in the NFL.

Case in point.

Almost none of the context behind the 49ers' 34-0 loss will come to fruition during the regular season. San Francisco is laden with star talent, very little of which was seen during the game itself.

Lynch offers a more to-the-point analysis:

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.

Let's break this down a bit. As stated previously, these games are little more than practices against another NFL team. Injuries do play a role, obviously, but most of the team's starters should be ready to go for Week 1.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Like most of the starters, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has spent the majority of the preseason watching from the sidelines.

When you combine a slew of backups at nearly every position—especially large combinations of first- and second-year players—the results may not be particularly noteworthy.

This may explain why San Francisco's defense struggled at times throughout the game versus Denver. It also lends credence to its ineffectiveness against the running game against both the Broncos and Ravens.

We should not expect that to be the case once the regular season commences.

A major concern in relation to the start of the regular season will be how players filling in for injured/suspended players fit the bill. This is the story behind linebackers like Michael Wilhoite, Corey Lemonier, Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Corey Lemonier may get the bulk of pass-rushing duties while Aldon Smith serves his suspension.

Lemonier is the favorite to fill in for Aldon Smith on the outside when Smith serves his eventual NFL-mandated suspension this season. Linebackers like Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch may also see some time.

This will be a tough challenge for sure, and the 49ers do lose tremendous presence by not having Smith on the field. 

But the bigger question will be how Wilhoite fills in for Bowman's stead. Bowman may miss half the season, per Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, and his production will be tough to replicate.

While there may be some competition between Wilhoite and Borland, the edge has to go to Wilhoite, who performed a similar role last season filling in for the injured Willis. This is also the argument made by James Brady of Niners Nation.

Wilhoite may not be the elite linebacker that Bowman is, but he is certainly equal to the task of shoring up the absence. The cast of players around him will also be much better during the regular season.

Let us restate our thesis again—these first two preseason games have been pretty ugly no matter how one evaluates it, but they are by no means reasons enough for us to panic.

The entirety of San Francisco's second- and third-string players may not inspire confidence when playing as a unit, but individually we have a number of promising backups. 

How worried are you about the 49ers' season thus far?

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We can also speculate the 49ers' coaching staff is holding back the team during this phase. The preseason is a perfect time to practice various formations, plays and personnel groups against NFL competition.

Want to see if Play X works? Let's give it a shot in the preseason first.

If this were an article about the 49ers' woes following Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys on September 7, yes, we should all be worried.

But it isn't.

Take a breath. This team will be just fine.

 

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.

Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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