49ers vs. Chargers: Report Card Grades for Each Niners Unit
For starters, the 49ers finally mustered their first points at their new Santa Clara venue. Additionally, San Francisco put together a couple of touchdown drives and finally pulled off their first preseason victory.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh elected to play his starters much longer throughout the game as opposed to what he had done the previous two games.
This makes sense knowing that coaching staffs often treat the third game of the preseason as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. We will likely not see too many starters when San Francisco takes to the road against the Houston Texans on Thursday, August 28.
But the play of San Francisco's starters still might beg some questions as the regular season draws near. The offensive line, at times, looked as if it was full of holes. No. 1 quarterback Colin Kaepernick was under pressure for the majority of the game.
Fortunately, the 49ers backups came into the contest against a much thinner Chargers squad on both sides of the ball. Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert had his first decent game of the preseason so far, and a number of San Francisco rookies also contributed in a significant manner.
The 49ers took this game 21-7, and although it means little in the preseason, the victory certainly gives the team some confidence and momentum as it rounds out the final preparations before Week 1 commences on September 7.
Let's take a look at a unit-by-unit analysis from San Francisco's victory over San Diego.
49ers fans figured to see a little more of quarterback Colin Kaepernick against San Diego, and they were right.
Kaepernick remained on the field for all of the offensive snaps during the first quarter, eventually giving way to backup Blaine Gabbert in the second.
The 49ers' starting offensive line was roughed up a bit by San Diego's pass rush, and Kaepernick found himself frequently rushed out of the pocket on various attempts.
Colin Kaepernick hit again in the pocket. This time, it's from LB Melvin Ingram. Chargers giving #49ers offensive line fits.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) August 24, 2014
On the whole, Kaepernick posted six completions on 12 attempts for 59 total yards.
But San Francisco's most productive passer proved to be Gabbert.
Gabbert has been under plenty of scrutiny this preseason—the nature of which is described further by Wes Hanson of Niners Nation—and it would have been a worthy discussion to determine whether or not he would be the No. 2 guy at the start of the regular season.
Yet Gabbert looked as if he finally found some rhythm against San Diego on Sunday. He completed seven passes on 11 attempts for 66 total yards and San Francisco's lone passing touchdown. Gabbert finished the day with a 110.4 quarterback rating as well.
While many of his passes were dump-offs and checkdowns, Gabbert looked as if he was finally getting comfortable under center.
#49ers Blaine Gabbert, who entered with NFL's 112th-ranked passer rating of 17.9, posts a 110.4 rating (7-of-11, 66 yds, TD)— Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 24, 2014
Gabbert gave way to Josh Johnson, who is realistically the only quarterback who can challenge Gabbert for the backup job. Johnson's day saw him complete five passes out of eight attempts for 52 yards. McLeod Bethel-Thompson also saw limited action late in the game.
The only real drama here is determining whether or not Gabbert retains the assumed backup role. At this point, it would be hard to point to anything else but Gabbert getting the nod.
Gabbert may have been the quarterback most under the microscope against San Diego, and he responded about as well as he could have. Now it is up to the remaining cast of backups to try and catch up.
While head coach Jim Harbaugh elected to play the vast majority of his starters in Week 3 of the preseason, veteran running back Frank Gore only saw one carry, rushing for minus-two yards on a simple run play during the first quarter.
We should expect this out of the 31-year-old veteran, who is clearly being rested for the regular season.
Rookie back Carlos Hyde figured to get a lot of the early work, as did LaMichael James, who had missed the first two preseason games while recovering from a dislocated elbow suffered in training camp.
James' rushing contributions were minimal at best, and he had some difficulties with the new sod at Levi's Stadium, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
On the promising side of things, Hyde averaged 6.3 yards per carry. He rushed for 38 total yards on six carries, and many of the runs were thick into Chargers coverage.
In short, Hyde looks like a beast three games into the preseason.
Carlos Hyde looks like the real deal.— Ronnie Lott (@RonnieLottHOF) August 24, 2014
But San Francisco got contributions from other runners on Sunday—names we likely won't hear much of during the regular season.
Glenn Winston led all 49ers backs against San Diego, totaling 58 yards and averaging 7.3 yards per carry during his body of work late in the second half. Winston's biggest run was a 27-yard touchdown carry that essentially sealed the game for San Francisco.
In all, the 49ers totaled 129 rush yards against a San Diego defense that clearly drew thin over the course of the game. This is the type of offense San Francisco is known for, and it is good to see the team get back to their roots when it is working.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
Second-year pro Vance McDonald did the most out of any 49ers receiver to bulk up this combined unit of wide receivers and tight ends in Week 3 of the preseason.
McDonald now holds the accolade of being the first 49ers player to score a touchdown at Levi's Stadium, preseason nonetheless, and his day was a sign that the No. 2 tight end is maturing nicely after a relatively quiet season a year ago.
McDonald led all 49ers receiving targets with 29 yards in addition to the touchdown reception from backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Vance McDonald wasn't ready for primetime last year, but the 49ers could get that Delanie Walker-type production from him this fall.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 24, 2014
We saw many of the 49ers' veterans at wideout and tight end play deeper into the game than we had before up to this point in the preseason, yet quarterback Colin Kaepernick had difficulty finding a consistent rapport with any of his targets.
This was largely due to an overall ineffectiveness of the 49ers offensive line, but we'll get to that shortly. So on most of Kaepernick's passes, he was flushed out of the pocket under pressure.
Fortunately, we did see some nice grabs from favorite targets like Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
There were also a couple of nice catches from San Francisco's depth receivers down the chart, although others had trouble keeping their hands on the ball.
Second-year pro Quinton Patton was targeted four times yet hauled in only one pass during the game. That one pass did generate some buzz, however.
Rookie wideout Bruce Ellington continues to receive plenty of attention, especially from Gabbert. In all, Ellington totaled 27 yards on just two receptions.
It's hard to grade the entire wideout unit after San Francisco's victory versus San Diego. On one hand, the 49ers offense spread the ball around adequately enough to give each one of San Francisco's wideouts some attention.
Excellent catches from players like Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Davis and McDonald lead us to believe San Francisco's passing game will be much more efficient in 2014. The production from guys like Ellington also reinforces this.
But other efforts, like those from Patton and Stevie Johnson—who combined for just two receptions for a total of nine yards—were not exactly off the charts. Perhaps they don't need to be, however.
There were some great moments and some moments that made us go "eh." This author would hope for a little more than 185 receiving yards considering the depth at receiver the 49ers currently have.
What happened to Mike Iupati against San Diego?
Much of the focus on San Francisco's O-line has been around the right side. With Alex Boone still holding out and Anthony Davis sidelined until the regular season with an injury, backups Joe Looney and Jonathan Martin have been slated to fill in at guard and tackle, respectively.
These two have been working on improving their game, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, but have had some poor showings thus far during preseason games.
But it was the left side that gave up the majority of first-string pressure against the Chargers. In short, Iupati bore the primary brunt of the blame.
Left guard Mike Iupati beaten badly, his man drills Colin Kaepernick, forces another fumble. Chargers recover.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) August 24, 2014
Mike Iupati is having a horrible game. Another QB pressure.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 24, 2014
Further details of the first-team O-line's struggles are described further by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
In addition to the breakdowns in pass protection, the O-line was not particularly effective in the run block. Considering the necessity of this in relation to San Francisco's overall offensive strategy, this is an aspect that will need to be shored up quickly.
Of course, the problems associated with the offensive line will continue to prompt questions surrounding what will happen with Boone and his current holdout. Do the 49ers need him more now than ever? Perhaps, but we can save that discussion for later.
Marcus Martin also suffered an injury during the second half. The rookie had entered into a competition with veteran Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job, per Maiocco, although signs point to Kilgore having the lead.
The knee injury—described further by Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News—is just another in the long line of injuries San Francisco has endured this preseason.
San Francisco's backups were able to shore up some of the problems along the O-line, albeit against second- and third-string San Diego defenses. But this is an ongoing problem with San Francisco's offense, and one that needs to be addressed soon.
For the first time this preseason, San Francisco saw its presumed first-team unit play along the defensive line.
Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, along with nose tackle Ian Williams, each made their preseason debuts against the Chargers on Sunday.
Patrick Willis starts alongside Michael Wilhote, The 49ers’ first D-line of Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ian Williams start, too.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 24, 2014
All three of these veterans had been sidelined by injuries, although the 49ers have the reputation of resting veterans even if there is a hint of injury. Precautionary reasons are also a big factor.
Smith and McDonald each recorded two tackles, and Williams added one of his down during his brief work in the first half.
San Francisco's second-team unit, consisting of much-heralded second-year pros Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, also had a good game up front. In toal, the 49ers D-line held San Diego's running game to 98 receiving yards over the course of the game.
Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine should get plenty of action this second half. #49ers— Christian Gin (@Christian_Gin) August 24, 2014
Both of these second-year players may not have affected the scoresheet much, but they were capable of some good pressure during their stints. Fellow backup Mike Purcell also made some noteworthy plays later in the game.
Nobody ran away with the game along the D-line, but thankfully, nobody hurt San Francisco either. It was a solid, blue-collar effort from the guys up front, and we would benefit from seeing more of this moving forward.
Yes, Patrick Willis may have played his first game of the preseason. Yes, Michael Wilhoite continues to show us that he is capable of filling in for NaVorro Bowman for the first half of the regular season.
A sack from Corey Lemonier could also indicate that he is ready to fill in Aldon Smith's stead pending Smith's likely NFL-mandated suspension following his off-the-field issues.
Wilhoite and Lemonier will unquestionably draw much of the attention during the regular season as they suit up alongside veterans like Willis and Ahmad Brooks.
But the 49ers can look back at this game versus the Chargers and take some comfort knowing they have seen the likes of young players drafted in 2014.
Which 49ers rookie stood out the most? Chris Borland had a phenomenal game, as did fellow linebacker Aaron Lynch.
Borland led all 49ers with seven tackles and even tacked on a sack.
Chris Borland has looked better each week after bad showing Week 1. Flashed on special teams and 2nd team D today.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 24, 2014
Borland remains in a stiff competition with Wilhoite for the starting inside linebacker job at the start of the season, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com. Wilhoite certainly has the edge given his experience, but Borland's efforts cannot go unnoticed.
But if the game mandated an MVP, fellow rookie Aaron Lynch could very well have earned that moniker.
Lynch was all over the field on Sunday, totaling three tackles, one sack and two passes defended. One of those tipped passes turned into an interception from Jimmie Ward.
There are plenty of stories that have accompanied Lynch since being drafted by the 49ers this season—the nature of which is described further by Eric Branch of SFGate.com. He may have the reputation of not being the hardest worker, but efforts like those we saw against San Diego make us think otherwise.
Aaron Lynch was relentless on that pass rush. Even fought through a hold. This is looking like the guy that excelled at Notre Dame.— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_PPI) August 24, 2014
In spite of this stellar play, Lynch could very well be on the roster bubble. It is hard to envision him not making the roster after the efforts he put forth against San Diego, though.
With Antoine Bethea out (concussion) and Tramaine Brock still sidelined, the 49ers secondary had the chance to employ more of its depth players—many of whom are struggling to make the final 53-man roster for Week 1.
As a unit, San Francisco's secondary allowed a total of 156 yards and one passing touchdown.
Backup safety Craig Dahl, who started in place of Bethea, struggled in coverage against Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. Dahl did make up for it later in the game with a crucial third-down stop at the line, but the coverage lapse is slightly concerning if Bethea's injury lasts any longer than projected.
For second straight week, opponent's tight end scores a TD with Craig Dahl in coverage.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 24, 2014
Barring injury, Dahl will remain a backup. Thus, we shouldn't be too concerned about his problems in coverage just yet.
The player who stepped up the most out of the secondary was rookie and first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward.
Ward is competing with returning veterans Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris for the nickel cornerback role, a competition that is described further by James Brady of Niners Nation.
All three defensive backs had notable moments on Sunday. Both Ward and Morris came up with an interception each, and Cox defended a pass in coverage.
One conclusion from the first quarter: It's clear now that Jimmie Ward is the No. 1 option at nickel cornerback. Cox now playing w/ 2s— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) August 24, 2014
Aside from the lapse in coverage from Dahl, San Francisco's secondary was largely effective against San Diego's pass attack on Sunday. It may have had some lapses earlier this preseason, but the most recent efforts are certainly noteworthy.
There isn't a lot of drama here, and that's the way it should be with special teams.
Punter Andy Lee looks as if he is in midseason form, and the coverage units were just as solid as ever. LaMichael James did struggle with the turf during some of his returns, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, but rookie Bruce Ellington is showing that he is equally capable of handling the job.
The biggest news on special teams, of course, is that veteran kicker Phil Dawson made his first field goal at Levi's Stadium after missing two in last week's 34-0 loss to the Denver Broncos.
He tacked on another later in the second half.
Hopefully Dawson has figured out the wind and turf at Levi's Stadium now that his preseason runs at the new venue have come to a close.
It is difficult to read too much into the 49ers coaching staff's decisions versus the Chargers on Sunday given the fact that both teams will face each other again during Week 16 of the regular season.
We can speculate that head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. don't want to reveal too much of their playbook during the preseason. As a result, the coaching staff would be expected to call a multitude of basic plays and schemes during the course of the game.
The play-calling might have opened up in the third week of the preseason based on this author's own personal observations, but the basic approaches of both the offensive and defensive units did not seem too out of character.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com sums this up by writing:
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.
In a vacuum, the 49ers both outplayed and outcoached the Chargers, but it is reasonable to believe that both teams are holding back their capabilities for the regular season.
Harbaugh again showed his relative lack of skill when it comes to challenging plays, going 0-for-2 in the process—although the second challenge seemed worthy during observation.
Harbaugh loses a challenge, and a timeout. Offense should burn one next series to complete the trifecta. #49ers— Damon Bruce (@DamonBruce) August 24, 2014
We can save any challenge concern for the regular season. In the meantime, it looked as if the 49ers generated enough momentum on both offense and defense without revealing too much to other teams around the league eager to watch film on San Francisco.
Special Teams: A
Cumulative Grade: B-
Had the 49ers offensive line performed up to the expectations of many fans and experts, San Francisco's overall grade during this game would have obviously been much higher than the final results turned out to be.
This was perhaps the lone negative from San Francisco's 21-7 win over San Diego, as well as the unfortunate injury to center Marcus Martin.
From the positive perspective, it was nice to see the 49ers generate some offense via the running game, something that will be an absolute necessity during the regular season.
Quick takes: Positives: 1st team defense, Blaine Gabbert. Negatives: O-line, specifically Mike Iupati. Also Craig Dahl. #49ers— Christian Gin (@Christian_Gin) August 25, 2014
We can take some comfort in the display of force shown by some of the 49ers' younger players like Jimmie Ward, Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch, among others. Depth might have been a question a week ago, but there's no doubt this team has a lot of organizational strength across the board.
Now comes the tough part.
The 49ers will have to start cuts. The first portion of these cuts will drop San Francisco's roster from 90 players down to 75. The next wave will provide us the final 53-man roster the 49ers will likely carry into Week 1 of the 2014 season.
A number of quality players will be off the 49ers roster in a few days, and their final destinations remain undetermined.
Fortunately, San Francisco can enter this phase riding a brief wave of momentum that shall hopefully carry over throughout the remainder of the preseason and into Week 1 on September 7 versus the Dallas Cowboys.
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.
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