The San Francisco 49ers line up for their third preseason game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. The first two games haven’t gone particularly well, but that’s due, in large part, to the absence of starters.
Colin Kaepernick has seen only 23 snaps so far this preseason, and had 10 dropbacks. Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree have had three snaps apiece. Vernon Davis, Bruce Miller, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson have all had fewer than 25 snaps.
It’s worse on defense. We’ve yet to see any of the starters on the defensive line, nor have linebacker Patrick Willis or cornerback Tramaine Brock played. The 49ers were pushed around by Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Joe Flacco’s Ravens, but they hardly had a competitive defense out there to play against them.
The third preseason game is generally the game in which we see the starters the most, but that’s not always been the case in the Jim Harbaugh era. In last year’s third preseason game, Colin Kaepernick got only 18 out of 73 offensive snaps. The year before, Alex Smith received only 17 out of 54 snaps. There is no publicly accessible snap-count information from 2011, but Smith threw only six of the 49ers’ 22 pass attempts in the third game of that preseason.
In short, if you’re expecting to finally see the “real” 49ers this Sunday, you’ll probably end up more or less disappointed. We’ll probably see the starters on offense for a full quarter, if past is prologue, but then the reserves will come in.
It’s quite possible, actually, that Blaine Gabbert will get a significant run with the starting offense. That could be good news—against Baltimore, he performed well on his first drive with mostly starters, before floundering horribly surrounded by backups. Gabbert hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, so any chance of seeing something positive out of him would have to be considered worth paying attention to.
On defense, we still won’t see the entire starting lineup present in the game, but we’ll get first looks at a lot of players. Ian Williams should be good to go after missing nearly an entire season with a broken ankle; he’s been participating in practice, and Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that he’s expected to play. Similarly, Justin Smith and Tramaine Brock are full participants in practice and should be good to go for at least a cameo against San Diego.
The 49ers will probably still be without Willis, who was still practicing in a blue noncontact jersey according to Barrows, and Antoine Bethea, who suffered a concussion against Denver. However, that leaves nine defensive starters who should go against the San Diego offense. That will be a much truer test of the defense's ability than the half-squad it put out there against Peyton Manning.
The key thing to watch on that side of the ball is who plays nickel cornerback with the starting defense. Perrish Cox has been starting at corner with Brock out, but he’s very much in the conversation at nickelback. Will first-round pick Jimmie Ward continue to get snaps there? My guess is yes, but Sunday’s game will go a long way to clarifying that role.
In the second half, you’ll get your last look at some players before the cutdown to 75 players happens on Aug. 26. Who might be vulnerable for this round of cuts?
On offense, seven running backs seems excessive for a 75-man roster. That puts Alfonso Smith and Glenn Winston in jeopardy; Smith’s gotten carries while Winston hasn’t, giving him an edge-up for now. I think we’ll also see a dramatic thinning of the receiver corps, as there are currently 11 on the roster.
Don’t expect to see any of the four quarterbacks go, though—not with the backup quarterback spot still so unsettled.
None of Gabbert, Josh Johnson or McLeod Bethel-Thompson has looked fantastic, to be honest. Johnson’s been the best of the three, if you ignore the fact that he’s played against lesser opposition than Gabbert. I think if any of them have a solid day in the second half against San Diego, that could be enough to give him the No. 2 job. I still have Gabbert on my 53-man roster and Bethel-Thompson on the practice squad; Johnson’s a wild card.
There should be more cuts on offense than on defense right away. Part of this is because the 49ers have 45 offensive players and only 39 defensive players at the moment, but an equal part is due to the losses of NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith for the beginning of the season. The 49ers have more need for immediate depth on defense than they do on offense, so general manager Trent Baalke and the coaching staff need to get as much of a look at the reserves as they can.
Pay attention to who’s getting snaps in the second half of the 49ers-Chargers game, because that will tell you a lot of what you need to know about the Aug. 26 cutdown. The average player who got cut at this point last season played 13 snaps in the 49ers’ third preseason game, compared to 21 snaps for all 49ers in the game. The more you see of a player, the more likely he’ll hang around to the fourth preseason game.
In summary, why should you watch this preseason game?
In the first quarter, it’s to see something resembling the starting lineups from both teams competing against one another. This is the “dress rehearsal” game, and that quarter should be more telling than the other 15 put together. They will still be playing very vanilla versions of offense and defense, so it’s not the end of the world if it sputters, but a scoring drive or three would be good for morale.
In the second and third quarters, it’s to see how the backup quarterback role is shaking out. Does Blaine Gabbert lead a scoring drive in the second quarter, or does he continue his pattern of short dump-offs and interceptions? Does Josh Johnson light up the third quarter, demanding a spot on the final roster? More than any other positional battle, that’s the one that’s still up for grabs.
In the fourth quarter, watch to see which players will stick around for another week. Is undrafted free agent Shayne Skov still in position to earn at least a practice squad slot? What about offensive lineman Dillon Farrell, whom Matt Barrows pointed out was doing really well in one-on-one work? The NFL just expanded the practice squads to 10 men, giving some of these undrafted free agents a better shot at sticking around for the long term.
Who gets axed on cutdown day?
Here’s hoping the offense puts together at least one touchdown drive to stem some of the panic that’s gone through the 49er fanbase so far.
All snap count information courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.