San Francisco 49ers: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason
OK, San Francisco 49ers, what have you taught us through Week 2 of this 2014 preseason?
Is it that through eight quarters of play, you have managed only three total points while surrendering 57? Or have these two games been largely inconsequential due to the starters logging such minimal playing time?
Could it be that you’re preparing to move on from no-show right guard Alex Boone by rewarding other players and committing to Joe Looney? Or have these two weeks been all about the non-existence of a legitimate backup behind Colin Kaepernick?
Well, from the outside looking in, it’s been a combination of all four—and much more.
The 49ers have indeed been systematically outplayed in all phases of the game. A composite scoring margin of minus-54 isn’t the best of looks. Yet there remains an optimistic element in the to-be-determined—in what we haven’t seen from this team so far, and what can happen moving forward (i.e., when the starters actually play).
The same goes for the ongoing Boone versus Niners front office battle. We can reasonably intuit that life beyond No. 75 is a future possibility based on contracts given out and Looney’s steadily improving play.
And as for the backup quarterback situation, let’s just say we’ll get to that in a moment.
From second-team inadequacy to stellar rookie production to fullback Bruce Miller and more, here is what we’ve learned through Week 2 of the 49ers preseason.
Beyond Kap, All Hope Is Lost—For Now
We’ll acknowledge at the outset that football life for the 49ers without Kaepernick is dismal, depressing and straight-up delusional.
If he were to miss any extended time this season, San Francisco wouldn’t make the playoffs. The red and gold might as well pack it up and wait for 2015 if he doesn't play much at all this year.
Yes—the guys backing up No. 7 really have been that bad.
Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson have been positively awful. Gabbert averaged less than three yards per completion, while over- and underthrowing receivers en route to one interception and a 32.4 passer rating against the Denver Broncos. Johnson then lost a fumble on his opening series, while McBLT threw an interception during his first drive on Sunday.
Compounding matters is Gabbert’s total lack of appreciation for his struggles.
“Frustration, I wouldn’t say that’s the word,” he said of his two-game showing, per MercuryNews.com's Cam Inman. “The biggest thing I have to do is take care of the football. It’s just one play. You’ve got to eliminate that one play in a drive, because that changes the outcome of it.”
Like Inman said—his “combined passer rating of 17.9” reflects consistent incompetence, not just one play.
Despite the bleak state of affairs, Jim Harbaugh won’t bring in outside reinforcements. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco reports that the head coach “will not look to add a backup quarterback before the start of the regular season.”
Guaranteed $2 million salary or not, Gabbert simply isn’t the guy. Niners fans can only hope that the former first-round bust falls beneath the veteran Johnson on the depth chart. Harbaugh’s pupil from the University of San Diego knows the system, has an accurate arm and at the very least brings some athleticism to the position.
But for the time being, Kaepernick had better stay healthy.
Bruce Miller Is an MVP-Type Asset—And He’s Back
Starting fullback Bruce Miller went down in Week 15 last season with a fractured left scapula. And now that he’s back and fully healthy, his absence became that much more palpable.
The college defensive end-turned-jack-of-all-trades-offensive-weapon is an integral piece to this team. He is a top-four blocker at his position, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), making him essential to San Francisco’s run-oriented schemes. He also excels at catching balls out of the backfield, defending on special teams and, as of this preseason, returning kickoffs.
Wrap that all together and Miller is a perfect blend between the old-school fullback and versatile, modern-day H-back.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee called him (somewhat comically) the “kick-return MVP” for his 29-yard run back against Denver. He also executed “two pancake blocks on returns by (Bruce) Ellington.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Kevin Lynch, via SFGate.com, provided more substance behind Miller’s importance.
…Miller is so valuable. While he did give up a pressure on the aforementioned blitz by Ward, he was also instrumental in the 9-yard and 3-yard runs by Frank Gore. Miller also prevented a loss of yardage after picking up defensive tackle Terrance Knighton when right guard Joe Looney whiffed on him during a 2-yard run by Carlos Hyde.
The 49ers will expect much of the former seventh-round pick in this upcoming 2014 campaign. We expect Miller will oblige accordingly.
Inside Linebacker, No. 3 CB and No. 4 WR Locked in Dead Heat
Personnel changes to NFL rosters come in both good and bad varieties. The 49ers, it seems, have experienced more of the former.
Despite losing a defensive MVP, multiple cornerbacks and a wide receiver to either injury or free agency, this 2014 preseason has been a positive showcase across the board. And when we say positive, we mean the benefits gleaned through positional competition.
Veteran Michael Wilhoite and third-round pick Chris Borland are taking turns winning the battle at inside linebacker in place of NaVorro Bowman. No. 1 pick Jimmie Ward and third-year 49er Perrish Cox are doing the same at nickel cornerback since Carlos Rogers signed with the Oakland Raiders.
Meanwhile, a trio of fourth-round wideouts—Brandon Lloyd (2004), Quinton Patton (2013) and Bruce Ellington (2014)—are one-upping one another for the No. 4 spot on a seemingly practice-by-practice basis.
Welcome to the classic case of a team having almost too much depth on its roster.
Borland has consistently shined in practice, but it’s Wilhoite who has taken the reins in Bowman’s stead as of late. He tied for a team-high seven tackles against the Broncos and added a quarterback hit. He is also more “assignment sound,” while his rookie counterpart “makes too many mistakes,” per SFGate.com's Lynch. Trusted scribe Maiocco of CSN Bay Area agrees.
Then again, Borland received a much higher grade for his work Sunday from the genius stat minds at Pro Football Focus. Maiocco also reports that Niners’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio believes the “competition is too close to call.”
At cornerback, Cox bulked up over the offseason in preparation for the nickel role. He showed off his new “eight pounds of muscle” with a great tackle of the Broncos’ 6’3”, 229-pound Demaryius Thomas and savvy play in run defense, per Lynch.
Even though Cox knows the defensive schemes that Ward is still digesting, the No. 30 overall pick has “shown signs he’ll be ready” for Week 1, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, via SFGate.com. Doing as well as he did against Welker and the Peyton Manning-led Broncos would surely indicate as much.
In any case, Cox can make a stronger push for the nickel job after Tramaine Brock reclaimed his starting role following a lengthy absence (ankle). The Sacramento Bee’s Barrows gives the slight edge to Ward heading into preseason Week 3.
Finally, the battle for the fourth receiver slot is the most intriguing of all.
Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have a stranglehold on the top two spots. And Maiocco reports that trade acquisition Stevie Johnson “appears to be the front-runner to get on the field when the 49ers go with three-receiver sets.” But things get interesting after this leading triumvirate.
Ellington and Patton have “shown some promise,” per Maiocco. Ellington, in particular, has already performed like an established vet and has led San Francisco in catches in both preseason games. Both he and Patton operate as cover men and returners as well.
And that’s the key—special teams. Maiocco notes "Lloyd might be the 49ers’ fourth-best option, but it remains to be seen whether he would make the cut on the active 46 because he does not play special teams.” Furthermore, Inman of MercuryNews.com adds the following, with input from Johnson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman:
Side note: Stevie Johnson said coaches are “doing well at mixing up” the rotation of wideouts when they go to multiple-receiver formations. No one is anticipating a revolutionary change, however. “I’m pretty sure everyone knows the bulk will be with Crab and Boldin,” Johnson said…Roman [also] noted that the 49ers historically have split out Vernon Davis and other tight ends.
Stay tuned, folks—this positional fight will come to a head Sunday in the ever-important third game of the preseason.
Contract Riches to Those Who Show Up…Looney Benefits
Colin Kaepernick showed up and received six figures.
Joe Staley and Glenn Dorsey reported to camp and earned extensions.
Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati did the same and are engaged in healthy contract talks.
Alex Boone has done none of the sort. And as a result, he remains unpaid. Notice the pattern?
CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco shrewdly points out that “the 49ers have taken the stance that they will not negotiate new contracts until a player reports to camp.” They are also not in the business of “[tearing up] deals with players who have remaining seasons on their contracts.” Boone is signed through 2015.
Despite his 2014 salary qualifying as just 43rd-highest among NFL guards—a criminally meager amount indeed—Boone remains a no-show. He has undoubtedly outplayed his current deal but won’t get a new one until he reports—even if it’s just a good-faith gesture predicated on ulterior motives.
To be sure, the 49ers don’t have any intention of trading their starting right guard and top backup tackle. Both Maiocco and The Sacramento Bee’s Barrows have reported as much. The latter sums it up best:
According to one source, the 49ers are asking for a first- or a second-round draft as compensation. Another, however, said that the team would rather not trade Boone and would have to be “blown away” by an offer to consider it. Both point to one bottom line: The 49ers have a high value on Boone and would rather he play for them. Boone, by all accounts, wants to be with the 49ers where he has started the last two seasons at right guard.
So, while we expect Boone will eventually rejoin his red-and-gold-clad teammates at some point in the regular season, an indefinite period of time remains. In the interim, then, sophomore guard Joe Looney stands to benefit. It’s not like he hasn’t already.
Inman of MercuryNews.com provides excerpts of glowing praise for Looney’s play from both players and head coach Jim Harbaugh:
Boone’s replacement on the starting unit has been Joe Looney, who [Anthony] Davis described as a “smart, heady player. Looney is like a vet, mentally.”…[Looney himself] saw self-improvement from the exhibition-opener at Baltimore to Sunday’s game against Denver. “I played a little better, and there’s always stuff I can get better at doing, like my pad level,” Looney said…“We believe in Joe Looney, we believe we can win with Joe Looney,” Harbaugh said. “Joe Looney is working every day to improve and that’s what we want the whole unit doing.”…“He’s constantly improving. He’s doing very well for us,” Kaepernick said. “He came in last year (against the Rams on Dec. 1) and played well.”
Even though Pro Football Focus’ proprietary metrics might not agree, San Francisco is in good hands with Looney at right guard until Boone returns. Validation from teammates and a certain head decision-maker should suffice for now.
“Boone’s a great guy and a heck of a player, and I want to do a great job just like he did,” said Looney, per Inman.
The 2014 Draft Class Is Really Good
Following a period of nagging injuries that plagued various members of this 2014 draft class, it soon became apparent these 49ers rookies were pretty good.
We already covered Ward. Despite missing a huge portion of the offseason while recovering from foot surgery, the hard-hitting defensive back immediately began making plays. And when practice turned into preseason games, the solid work defending both run and pass continued.
It’s only a matter of time until he synthesizes the intricacies of Vic Fangio’s complex defensive schemes into regular-season production.
Then there’s second-round pick Carlos Hyde. The high-IQ, freight train of a running back wasted no time leading the 49ers in rushing yards during his first NFL game. Breaking off a 19-yard run and averaging a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry against a stout Baltimore Ravens defense were impressive feats indeed.
More noteworthy, however, is how offensive coordinator Greg Roman depicted the No. 57 overall selection in this year’s draft, per CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco:
As you’re describing it to him, certain guys can just know immediately what you’re describing because they saw that snapshot in their head and it immediately makes sense to them…And they’re not seeing words coming out of your mouth, they’re seeing a picture. I think Carlos, up until this point at least, has displayed that kind of characteristic.
Recall that whole thing about elevated football IQ?
I think for running backs it’s a great thing because they have so many adjustments to make in protection, and even it’s simply running the football, seeing things moving in front of them, things in constant motion and reacting to that quickly. And that’s a Frank Gore type of trait, and so far, Carlos has afforded himself very well in that area.
Or as the man himself put it, via Maiocco: “It’s starting to click. I’ve been able to be relaxed, play fast, know my job and execute.”
Moving on to Round 3, Borland is much more than a mistake-prone rookie. He is too savvy, too instinctual and too sound a tackler for his early mishaps to carry over into the regular season. We already learned how quickly he improved against none other than Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
A similar upward trajectory applies to the Niners’ first third-round pick Marcus Martin. This year’s top collegiate center stumbled out of the gates and lost his chance of winning the starting job to Daniel Kilgore, who Maiocco reports is the “clear front-runner.”
Yet Martin already produced a much better showing against Denver after his disaster of a performance in the Baltimore-based scrimmages. Barrows of The Sacramento Bee also notes how the rookie center has fully recovered from his ankle injury and is in much “better shape.” Pro Football Focus honored him with a positive grade in pass protection versus the Broncos as well.
Of the Niners’ eight remaining picks, four are all but confirmed for redshirt status in 2014 (OL Brandon Thomas, CB Keith Reaser, DT Kaleb Ramsey and FB Trey Millard). The other four, meanwhile, have proved worthy of a spot on this contending roster in one form or another.
Ellington passes the eye test on the field and fills the box score off it. Maiocco confirms he’s a lock for the 53-man roster.
The once-embattled Aaron Lynch has made a strong return from a hamstring that sidelined him early in training camp. The first-round-talent-turned-fifth-round-pick has said and done all “the right things,” according to The Chronicle’s Lynch. He has also shown Aldon Smith-like qualities in both physical appearance and practice, per Barrows.
An interception-negating offside penalty against the Broncos will at worst put the 6’5”, 276-pound pass-rushing force on the practice squad.
As for Dontae Johnson (Round 4, No. 129) and Kenneth Acker (Round 6, No 180), either cornerback would provide a highly underrated asset to San Francisco’s secondary. The former offers great length with his 6’2” frame, while both bring pro-level intelligence to the game.
Johnson made a name for himself first with four tackles, one pass breakup and a positive grade in pass coverage from PFF against Baltimore. He ruled practice three days later by knocking down another pass and registering a pick-six versus those same Ravens, per Maiocco.
Acker joined the coverage party by picking off two throws on a Wednesday practice, followed by a “three-play stanza in which he knocked a pass away, intercepted a pass...and drew an offensive pass interference in the 34-0 loss to Denver,” per Lynch. PFF awarded him with one of the highest grades any 49ers player has received in the preseason thus far.
Unlike a certain 2012 draft contingent, most—if not every—member of this latest class will make the 53-man roster. We learned through the benefit of hindsight about the former; the latter won’t require such historical reflection.
Three Points Scored, 57 Allowed Will Mean Nothing in Two Weeks
Sure, the 49ers have mustered just one measly field goal and have allowed 19 times that many points on defense through two preseason games.
But will that even mean anything in two weeks’ time when real football begins? In a word, no.
One needs to look no further than the total snaps counts logged by the presumptive starters. Here is how the numbers stack up on offense, per Pro Football Focus:
- QB Colin Kaepernick: 23
- RB Frank Gore: 3
- FB Bruce Miller: 12
- WR Michael Crabtree: 3
- WR Anquan Boldin: 14
- TE Vernon Davis: 12
- LT Joe Staley: 30
- LG Mike Iupati: 30
- C Daniel Kilgore: 41
- RG Alex Boone: 0
- RT Anthony Davis: 0
Scoring points is rather challenging when your two pre-eminent playmakers register the equivalent of one offensive series.
And now for the defensive snap totals:
- DE Justin Smith: 0
- NT Ian Williams: 0
- DE Ray McDonald: 0
- OLB: Aldon Smith: 17
- ILB NaVorro Bowman: 0
- ILB Patrick Willis: 0
- OLB Brooks: 28
- CB Tramaine Brock: 0
- FS Eric Reid: 31
- SS: Antoine Bethea: 28
- CB Chris Culliver: 44
Yes, Bowman’s potential replacements over the first half of 2014 (Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland) have received ample playing time with 145 total snaps. The same goes for Aldon Smith’s fill-ins, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier, who have accrued 161, and nickel corner Jimmie Ward, who has 84 to his name. These will prove beneficial soon enough.
But when the entire defensive line, No. 1 corner and quarterback of the defense do not log a single play through two weeks of the preseason, surrendering nearly 30 points per game shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Unless this aforementioned bunch plays extensively on Sunday and still loses to the San Diego Chargers, Niners fans shouldn’t put much stock in preseason action. The rookies and second-year assets no doubt benefit from the experience. But when it comes to winning games when it counts, what has transpired thus far on the gridiron is of little consequence.
These Super Bowl-contending 49ers would likely tell you the same if given the chance.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16