San Francisco 49ers: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
This being the third exhibition game on the schedule, the starters typically play more. With the 49ers playing again on Thursday, we can expect only a cameo appearance from many on the first unit.
Watching the substitution patterns in this third game gives you a very good idea of how the 49er coaches view their reserves and who is likely to contribute this season. It also tells you who is not likely to make the 53-man roster.
Perhaps the most important thing is that key starters were able to get through this game with no major injuries.
Backup fullback Will Tukuafu suffered a concussion, offensive lineman Marcus Martin sustained a knee injury and safety Bubba Ventrone injured his hamstring.
The most significant injury was Martin's. He was behind Daniel Kilgore in the competition for the starting center job, but he figured to be a valuable reserve. We will know more about the full extent of Martin's injury in a couple days.
Let's take a closer look at some of the things we learned through this, the third week of the preseason.
The Levi's Stadium Turf Held Up Pretty Well
We can definitively say that the 49ers ground crew is far more competent than the Chicago Cubs ground crew at Wrigley Field.
After divots were cropping up in the 49ers practice on Wednesday, head coach Jim Harbaugh cut his practice short on Wednesday and took his team off the field. The conditions were terrible and the players were subjected to potential injury risk.
The sod was originally laid in April, but had not taken root strongly enough over these past four months.
New, thicker and deeper sod was brought in and installed on Friday. The grass actually held up pretty well and was not a major factor in the game. The plan is for an entirely new field of sod to be installed, which will hopefully be ready prior to the 49ers' first regular season game on September 14th.
Unlike Chicago, the San Francisco grounds crew successfully avoided becoming the laughingstock of the media.
Bruce Ellington Will Be a Factor This Season
Bruce Ellington's speed and quickness will be a tremendous asset for the 49ers. San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke selected Ellington in the fourth round, with the 106th overall pick.
At 5'9" and 197 pounds, Ellington's small stature was a major reason he fell that far in early May. However, Ellington is a football player and his mental toughness does not let his size stop him.
Ellington made several nice plays for the 49ers against San Diego and looked like he knew what he was doing at every moment on the field. He caught two passes for 27 yards and carried the ball once on an end-around for a five-yard gain.
It remains to be seen whether Ellington or LaMichael James will handle the punt and kickoff return duties.
Blaine Gabbert Solidified His Position as the Backup Quarterback
Blaine Gabbert was far from perfect in his third preseason game, but he did enough to help secure his hold on the backup quarterback job.
Gabbert led the 49ers to their first touchdown just prior to halftime against the Chargers.
On the day, Gabbert completed seven passes in 11 attempts for 66 yards. He threw one touchdown pass, a six-yard completion to Vance McDonald.
Perhaps the most important development was that Gabbert did not turn the ball over, something he had problems with in his first two games.
Gabbert also looked much more comfortable and in command of the offense, during this game. His QB rating of 110.4 was indicative of a performance far better than those of his two preseason games as a 49er.
Carlos Hyde Is Locked in as the Backup to Frank Gore
The job as the all-important backup to Frank Gore belongs to Carlos Hyde. With the season-ending injury to Kendall Hunter, the choice came down to LaMichael James and Carlos Hyde.
Hyde took advantage when James missed a few weeks with an elbow injury. As a bigger, stronger back than James, the rookie from Ohio State will see much more action in the core offense.
Against the Chargers, Hyde had six carries for 38 yards. He ran very hard and displayed good speed, vision and power.
Vance McDonald Looks Ready to Contribute This Year
Vance McDonald was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2013 draft. He was the 55th overall player drafted.
The plan was that McDonald would replace Delanie Walker who had departed via the free-agent market.
Unfortunately, McDonald was not ready for the job. He dropped several passes in 2013 and looked slow and out of shape. As the drops occurred, quarterback Colin Kaepernick seemed to lose confidence in his rookie tight end and rarely even looked his way.
Now, in 2014, McDonald looks trimmer and a bit faster. He is playing with more confidence and hanging on to the football. Against the Chargers, McDonald caught three passes for 29 yards and one touchdown.
The 49ers like to utilize multiple tight end sets and with Vernon Davis on one side, it often leaves a favorable matchup for McDonald. It looks like McDonald will be a valuable contributor this season.
The 49ers Starting Offensive Line Struggled Against the San Diego Defense
There is no end in sight to the Alex Boone holdout, and the 49ers appear ready to move on without him. Unfortunately, the starting offensive line has not played well, and that was apparent against the Chargers.
The Chargers first-team defense was able to control the line, for the most part. The play of the starting offensive line must improve for the San Francisco offense to get in sync.
The 49ers actually did much better with their second- and third-string units against the Chargers' second- and third-stringers.
As far as the starting center position, it appeared as though Daniel Kilgore had won the job even before the injury to Marcus Martin.
The right guard position is also problematic with Boone's absence, as his replacement, Joe Looney has struggled at times.
With the state of flux of the 49ers offensive line, the cohesiveness has not been there. Colin Kaepernick was pressured very hard by the San Diego defense. On the Niners' second possession, he was sacked by Charger defensive end Corey Liuget, who blew past guard Mike Iupati, and coughed up the football. The Chargers recovered the fumble in Niners territory.
The offensive line has a lot of room for improvement. With three major question marks on the line, it may take some time for this to become a consistent and cohesive unit.
Glenn Winston Looked Very Good at Running Back
There is a very strong likelihood that the San Francisco 49ers will keep four running backs. Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James are assured spots, but there is one job open, due to the injury to Kendall Hunter.
Early on, Jewel Hampton was the favorite, but he has not looked that good. Both Alfonso Smith and Glenn Winston appear to have moved past him.
Winston, in particular, surely opened some eyes with his performance against the Chargers. He carried the ball eight times and rushed for 58 yards and showed an excellent burst when he scored on a 27-yard run, the longest of the day for either team.
Winston looks like he can contribute if called upon. If he can also add value on special teams he has a solid chance to make the roster.
Aaron Lynch Was Very Impressive and May Have Won a Roster Spot
Aaron Lynch had some off-field problems during his college career. This undoubtedly caused his stock to fall. The 49ers selected him in the fifth round, with the 150th overall pick.
Lynch is an outstanding athlete, possessing good size and speed. He is a very strong pass-rusher and could see some action if Aldon Smith is suspended, which is expected.
Lynch played extremely well against the Chargers. He made three tackles including one sack. He was a disruptive force on defense throughout the second half.
Look for Lynch on special teams, also. His speed and strength will be an asset for the 49ers. He most likely won his spot on the 53-man roster with his play against San Diego.
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers First-Team Offense Must Play a Lot Better
The 49ers first-team offense sputtered and could only muster three points in four possessions against the Chargers.
The San Diego defense put a lot of pressure on Colin Kaepernick, sacking him once and causing a fumble. They also flushed him out of the pocket, forcing him to scramble on multiple occasions.
For the game, Kaepernick completed just six of his 12 attempts for 59 yards. He also overthrew an open Vance McDonald on a seam route, which would have been a completion of about 20 yards.
In the 49ers' first three possessions, they gained a total of only 31 yards and committed a turnover. Finally, on Kaepernick's fourth series, he drove the team 55 yards for a field goal.
The lack of continuity in the San Francisco offense is concerning. This can be partially attributed to some very inconsistent offensive line play, as well as the fact that the first-team offense has not had many reps in the preseason contests.
Kaepernick will need to play much better for the 49ers to win. Right now, the entire starting offense is out of sync.