San Diego Chargers vs. San Francisco 49ers: 49ers' Preseason Week 3 Game Preview

Peter PanacyFeatured Columnist IVAugust 22, 2014

San Diego Chargers vs. San Francisco 49ers: 49ers' Preseason Week 3 Game Preview

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    The San Francisco 49ers host the San Diego Chargers in their third preseason matchup on Sunday, Aug. 24.
    The San Francisco 49ers host the San Diego Chargers in their third preseason matchup on Sunday, Aug. 24.Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

    The San Francisco 49ers will try to find some sort of rhythm this preseason as they play host to the visiting San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Aug. 24 at 4 p.m. ET on Fox.

    Not much has gone right for the 49ers, who have dropped two straight preseason games, being outscored 57-3 in the process. San Francisco's offense has failed to muster any sort of production and the defense has been vulnerable in a number of significant areas.

    Of course, we have to remind ourselves that it is just the preseason and these scores mean almost nothing in determining the eventual outcome of the 2014 NFL season. The 49ers remain an elite team in spite of the generated statistics.

    Additionally, we know that the 49ers have rested the vast majority of their starters in both preseason matchups thus far.

    We might expect them to do more of the same come Week 3 of the preseason, although it would not be out of the question for head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. to try to create some more positives in what has otherwise been a lackluster start to the final preparations before the regular season.

    Harbaugh: “We need to make decisions on who we’re playing with. We’re not going to keep experimenting. We need to tighten this down, fast.”

    — Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 18, 2014

    It is feasible that we see less of San Francisco's fringe players against San Diego given that the team will have to cut the current 90-man roster down to 75 by 4 p.m. ET on Aug. 26. The final formulation of the 53-man roster will be made on Saturday, Aug. 30.

    A current list of the 49ers roster can be found here.

    Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff may have already made some personnel decisions by now, which could lead to speculation about which players may be seen Sunday. Of course, this third preseason game may be the final in-game opportunity to view bubble-watch players before being cut.

    At any rate, we should expect the 49ers to try to bounce back in some fashion from two underwhelming performances. 

    Let us break down what to look for in the upcoming preseason matchup versus the Chargers. There are some significant questions on the table and we'll try to answer them.

49ers' Preseason Week 2 Recap

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    One word may be used to describe San Francisco's 34-0 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Aug. 17: Ugly.

    The Broncos spoiled the NFL debut of Levi's Stadium, and while much of the focus was on this new state-of-the-art facility, the game itself was pretty awful.

    Let's look at the numbers for a moment.

    The 49ers mustered a mere 230 yards of total offense against the Broncos and were unable to score during four quarters of lackluster play.

    In total, San Francisco's rushing attack gained only 69 yards and the passing offense generated just 161 in comparison to Denver's 87 and 270 yards, respectively.

    The 49ers again lost the time-of-possession battle (32:57 to 27:03) as well as the turnover differential. San Francisco committed four turnovers while Denver committed zero.

    Last time #49ers shut out in exhibition game at home (Ye Olde Candlestick) was in 1979. Opponent: #Broncos, 21-0

    — Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 17, 2014

    In short, almost nothing went right for San Francisco. Kicker Phil Dawson missed two field goals—almost unheard of given his 2013 track record—and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert failed to build on a forgettable performance in Week 1 of the preseason versus the Baltimore Ravens.

    “We've got to get better,” Jim Harbaugh said via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. “This is going to be an important week for us—a big week. We need improvement. And we need to make decisions on who we’re playing with. We’re not going to keep experimenting. We've got to tighten this down fast.”

    #49ers coach Jim Harbaugh: “We’re not going to keep experimenting.” Here’s how much every player played: http://t.co/goqKxXWEKp

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 18, 2014

    We still must remind ourselves that this is the preseason. Stats and scores mean little when determining just how good this team is. Maiocco provides us with the total number of snaps each player played on Sunday.

    Many starters, including guys like linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald and cornerback Tramaine Brock did not play. Other starters, like quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, saw extremely limited snaps.

    The nature of the blowout might force Harbaugh to play his starters a little longer against San Diego, but we can't be for certain.

News and Notes

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    Injuries

    Like it or not, injuries can play a vital factor during a preseason stretch. Look no further than the season-ending injury to Arizona Cardinals star defensive tackle Darnell Dockett as a perfect example.

    The 49ers have also suffered a key injury along their defensive line—Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn bicep and may miss the rest of the season, per The Associated Press (via Fox Sports).

    Dorsey received a two-year extension in the wake of his injury, which is nice, but his absence certainly hampers San Francisco's D-line.

    Another defender also suffered a preseason injury, albeit not as serious. Offseason acquisition Antoine Bethea left Sunday's game with a concussion and did not return, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.

    Bethea tweeted after the game, letting people know he was doing well and is expected to be back in action for San Francisco's regular-season opener on Sept. 7, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

    I'm doing well and I appreciate all of the concern!!

    — Antoine Bethea (@ABethea24) August 18, 2014

    On the positive side of things, the 49ers received some reinforcements along their beleaguered D-line when linemen Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ian Williams were all activated. None of them played against the Broncos however, and the 49ers may continue to rest them for precautionary reasons.

     

    Contracts

    We've discussed Dorsey's extension already. Further details are provided by Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.

    The bigger contractual stories, of course, center around two of the 49ers' key players this season—Alex Boone and Michael Crabtree.

    Boone's holdout has not generated much news as of late. Maiocco reports that both sides remain far apart in discussions over an extension for the 27-year-old offensive guard. This has led to speculation that the 49ers might trade Boone at some point, but nothing of the sort has materialized.

    Multiple teams interested in trade for @49ers holdout (via @Rapsheet)? http://t.co/TU9ILXkcHv pic.twitter.com/tCdoJCt78I

    — NFL (@nfl) August 9, 2014

    The holdout becomes more precarious given some of the struggles San Francisco has endured along the right side of the offensive line. Joe Looney is currently holding down Boone's starting spot, but he is an obvious downgrade.

    Crabtree's potential extension is another point worth noting.

    NFL Insider Ian Rapoport tweeted that the 49ers are working towards an extension for Colin Kaepernick's favorite receiver:

    #49ers next contract target: WR Michael Crabtree. There is progress. Hope is for a deal before the season. Otherwise shelved until after

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 19, 2014

    “We’re going to try,” general manager Trent Baalke said via Maiocco. “We’re going to work at it, certainly. But at some point, you got to stop negotiating deals and let these guys concentrate on playing football. I don’t know what point that is. We’ll make that determination as a club."

    We can continue to monitor this situation, but the good news is that Crabtree feels he is at 100 percent, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee—something he did not feel up to in the wake of his Achilles injury last season.

     

    Backup Quarterback Controversy?

    After offseason acquisition Blaine Gabbert struggled in the 49ers' 23-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the first preseason gamge, much of the focus shifted to fellow backup Josh Johnson in determining exactly who should be the primary backup to Kaepernick.

    Before San Francisco's second matchup against Denver, Harbaugh reiterated that he was still very pleased with Gabbert's abilities, per Eric Branch of SF Gate.

    This led to the continued speculation that Gabbert would retain the No. 2 job under center. His $2 million contract would indeed be a lot to swallow if the 49ers decided to release him.

    But Gabbert struggled again versus Denver—completing eight of 14 passes for just 40 yards.

    Blaine Gabbert's passer rating over two games against second-string defenses: 17.9

    — Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 17, 2014

    Gabbert's ineffectiveness might have put him into more trouble, but the fact remains that neither Johnson nor McLeod Bethel-Thompson have exactly turned heads either. All three quarterbacks committed costly turnovers during Sunday's game.

    Jim Harbaugh said 49ers will not look for another QB. "We got good quarterbacks," he said.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 17, 2014

    In context, the backup situation is little more than a question of insurance for Kaepernick. Harbaugh may keep this point moot until the final 53-man roster is formulated, but avoiding the problematic issues behind San Francisco's quarterback depth chart remains nearly impossible.

Injury Report

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    Safety Antoine Bethea (right) was removed from Sunday's game with a concussion.
    Safety Antoine Bethea (right) was removed from Sunday's game with a concussion.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Injuries    

    Glenn Dorsey, DT—Out

    Antoine Bethea, SS—Questionable

    Ray McDonald, DE—Probable

    Justin Smith, DE—Probable

    LaMichael James, RB—Questionable

    Marcus Lattimore, RB—NFI

    Trey Millard, FB—NFI

    Keith Reaser, CB—NFI

     

    All injury statuses courtesy of CBS Sports.

     

    San Francisco's injury report doesn't tell us much as preparations continue for Sunday's matchup versus the Chargers. 

    The 49ers have already shown willingness to sit players even if there is only the slightest hint of injury. Additionally, just because a player has been activated does not necessarily mean we will see him on the field.

    Look at Justin Smith and Ray McDonald as perfect examples.

    Glenn Dorsey's absence from the preseason—and likely from all of 2014—has been negated somewhat by the return of Ian Williams and the promising play shown by second-year pro Quinton Dial. 

    Dial is making a strong case for the starting nose tackle job, per Eric Branch of SF Gate, so this should be an interesting storyline to watch as the latter half of the preseason begins.

    The only other noteworthy injury is that to safety Antoine Bethea (concussion). As stated previously, Bethea should miss the remainder of the preseason as he undergoes the NFL's protocols for concussions but is expected to be ready by Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys.

X-Factors and Matchups to Watch

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    The 49ers obviously do not want a repeat performance in the wake of what happened against Denver. Without revealing or risking too much, the team will look to put forth a much more impressive showing against San Diego in the second-ever NFL game at Levi's Stadium.

    The 1-1 Chargers were pummeled by the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks 41-14 last week, so they too will be looking for a rebound of sorts versus San Francisco.

    Again, we should not expect to see either team's starters go late into the game—perhaps no more than a quarter at best.

    Let's evaluate some matchups to pay attention to this Sunday.

     

    49ers Run Defense vs. RB Ryan Mathews and Co.

    San Francisco's run defense has not exactly been stout against opponents thus far during the preseason. They allowed 237 rushing yards against Baltimore before shoring things up a bit against Denver, allowing 87.

    Granted, a large number of the 49ers' starters saw little to no playing time in each of these two preseason games, but we should expect Vic Fangio's defense to try to clamp down a little harder on the rushing attack from San Diego.

    Chargers running back Ryan Mathews missed the game versus Seattle after averaging 3.8 yards per carry during the team's preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 7.

    San Francisco's first-team unit will have to do this without All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman—who continues to recover from injury—and perhaps with a second-team D-line comprised of guys like Tank Carradine, Mike Purcell and Quinton Dial.

    Stopping the run has been paramount to the 49ers' fortunes in recent years. Getting this unit back on track will again be vital in determining the success of the forthcoming season.

    Stopping the run in nickel has been the 49ers defense’s biggest issue this preseason.

    — Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 18, 2014

     

    Carlos Hyde vs. Chargers Run Defense

    On the flip side, we will want to see the 49ers rushing game again establish itself as one of the best in the league.

    Like the game against Denver, No. 1 back Frank Gore will likely see only limited action. This opens up further opportunities for the rookie Carlos Hyde to potentially take the game over early on.

    We saw some impressive carries from Hyde against Baltimore, but the Ohio State standout amassed a mere 11 yards on four carries—averaging 2.8 yards per carry—versus a much-improved Denver run defense.

    #49ers running back Carlos Hyde is taken down by #Broncos' Aqib Talib. (Photo by @Presto89) pic.twitter.com/z7YuZpjL2U

    — Denver Post Broncos (@PostBroncos) August 17, 2014

    There is no doubt that coaches and fans alike want Hyde to become a dynamic threat in short order. Going up against a San Diego defense that allowed 1,725 rushing yards last season (12th-best in the NFL) won't necessarily be an easy task, but the opportunities should be there.

    Also expect San Francisco to give depth backs Jewel Hampton and Alfonso Smith some carries late in the game.

     

    Phil Dawson vs. Levi's Stadium

    Veteran kicker Phil Dawson's two field-goal misses last week are obviously a sign for concern. 

    Dawson completed 88.9 percent of his attempts last season, but the two gaffes in his Levi's Stadium debut are hopefully not a sign of things to come.

    Said Dawson, via Mindi Bach of CSN Bay Area:

    I didn’t kick them as well as I would have liked to, but I didn’t feel like I completely mishit the ball either. I kicked pretty solidly in pregame, felt like I had a good plan for what to do and the flags and the whole deal. And then I get in the game expecting everything to go right to left, aim a little right, and it went right. So you can’t aim right and have it go right. Note to self. Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to have that place figured out anytime soon. The best you can do is show up on those game days and figure out a way to get them through.

    Phil Dawson on wind patterns in Levi’s: "Honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to have that place figured out any time soon."

    — Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 19, 2014

    Let's hope that this is just a small misstep in Dawson's otherwise productive 49ers career. If it continues, however, the 39-year-old may be in for a long season.

     

    49ers Quarterbacks vs. Turnovers

    Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson each committed turnovers in Sunday's loss to the Broncos.

    Both Gabbert and Bethel-Thompson threw an interception each and Johnson fumbled a snap while under center.

    All of this factors into the discussion regarding which quarterback will be Colin Kaepernick's primary backup during the regular season. While Gabbert retains the edge given his contractual obligations, whoever doesn't turn the ball over has to emerge as the favorite here.

    This is what head coach Jim Harbaugh has argued, via Maiocco:

    In terms of a backup quarterback, it’s as simple as who doesn’t turn the ball over. They’re turning the ball over. All of them have. There’s nobody to elevate. Whoever doesn’t turn the ball over will be the backup quarterback.

    #49ers backup QB will be the one who doesn’t turn ball over. Nobody has claimed job, and 49ers not looking outside. http://t.co/tuaKFrkUjj

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 18, 2014

    In spite of Gabbert's likely No. 2 assumption, none of San Francisco's quarterbacks have exactly risen to the challenge of being the primary backup just yet.

    We'll see if this area improves against San Diego.

     

    49ers' X-Factor of the Week: CB Kenneth Acker

    Given his stellar play over two games, this moniker could easily be given to second-year pro defensive tackle Quinton Dial, who is earning consideration for the starting job, per Eric Branch of SF Gate.

    But perhaps the biggest surprise—and likely the only positive—from San Francisco's most recent loss is rookie sixth-round pick Kenneth Acker.

    #49ers rookie CB @Ack4rmDaTown made three strong plays Sunday in a span of five snaps. READ: http://t.co/B82Qm20wJu pic.twitter.com/XHzIHkANHN

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 19, 2014

    During a five-snap span in the third quarter, Acker deflected a pass in the end zone, drew an offensive pass interference penalty and had a would-be interception (negated by an offsides call to fellow rookie Aaron Lynch).

    Acker still remains a long shot to make the final 53-man roster.

    He has some stiff competition. The 6'0" corner out of Southern Methodist is going up against veterans like Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris, along with fellow rookies Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson on the 49ers depth chart.

    Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver figure to be the starters for San Francisco during the regular season.

    But Acker's stellar play against Denver certainly drew plenty of attention, and he has been a standout in practice over the past week, per Maiocco.

    Acker still has plenty of hurdles to overcome if he expects to make the roster, but the fact that he has something to fight for is enough to warrant our attention this weekend.

Prediction

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    Head coach Jim Harbaugh will look to right the ship against San Diego.
    Head coach Jim Harbaugh will look to right the ship against San Diego.USA TODAY Sports

    Once more, we cannot ignore the context of preseason games. All the panic and worry that may have accompanied the 49ers' first two matchups so far can, and should be, put to rest when considering the ultimate goals this franchise has in store for itself.

    Yes, things have been ugly from San Francisco's perspective. Yes, there are problems we simply cannot ignore. 

    But this is still an elite team and these games are final tune-ups for what really matters—the regular season. Every NFL squad has its own method of going about such games. The 49ers are no different.

    Still, let us try to grasp what San Francisco will try to do against the Chargers on Aug. 24.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. are under pressure when it comes to performing better in Week 3 of the preseason. Regardless of the context, the scrutiny remains to show positives on the field—of which there have been few.

    As pointed out by Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area, the 49ers might treat this game a little more like a regular-season matchup. He writes:

    In the 49ers’ next exhibition game this Sunday against the Chargers, it’s possible the starters will play a bit deeper into the game to build some momentum and confidence heading toward the Sept. 7 regular-season opener vs. the Cowboys. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, in fact, seemed to point to this as a big week for the 49ers.

    This means a number of San Francisco's first-team guys may see the field for a longer period of time than they have previously. We've touched on the limited snaps most of the starters have seen on the field thus far, so it is reasonable to expect those numbers to increase.

    Will @Kaepernick7 play more against the San Diego Chargers? READ: http://t.co/bR58ah9Pl5 pic.twitter.com/KurQ4azHNS

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 20, 2014

    Perhaps the only starters that see just as little time as previously, or none at all, are those for which the 49ers coaching staff want to give continued rest. We still may not see Justin Smith, Ian Williams or Ray McDonald on defense. Frank Gore may still receive only limited carries.

    This opens the door up for younger players like Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Carlos Hyde. Perhaps we see a little more from Kenneth Acker in the secondary too.

    It's worth speculating that the 49ers have made some decisions in terms of a number of bubble players deep on the team's roster by now. Maybe these guys see less time Sunday—the bulk of work likely going to San Francisco's second-team units throughout the game.

    We have covered the matchups to watch already. How do they and the other factors work themselves into the final equation?

    San Diego gave up 243 rushing yards to Seattle a week ago, so look for the 49ers to try to establish their own running game early and often. This likely means a lot of Carlos Hyde and Jewel Hampton. San Francisco remains a run-first team, so this statistic benefits the 49ers.

    The 49ers offense may try to take advantage of San Diego's red-zone woes from a week ago and work on punching the ball into the end zone. 

    The Chargers could only muster 238 total yards of offense against the Seahawks, so look for San Francisco's defense to try to clamp down early and often to keep themselves off the field.

    Lastly, it is hard to fathom Phil Dawson continuing his preseason struggles for much longer. He'll likely get a few more chances in this one and the results hope to be better.

    San Francisco wants to create some momentum at this point in the preseason. The time for experimentation has come and gone. It's down to business now.

    Prediction: 49ers 20, Chargers 13

     

    All statistics and accolades courtesy of ESPN.com and Pro-Football-Reference.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.