NFL teams must trim their rosters to 53 players in two days, so the final preseason game was a last chance for many players on the bubble to impress their coaches. And that’s just what happened on Thursday night at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego’s Mission Valley, where the San Diego Chargers scrubs took on the San Francisco 49ers scrubs.
Missing from the home team's lineup were offensive starters Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson. Backup quarterback Billy Volek threw only three passes before rookie Scott Tolzien took over early in the second quarter and finished the game.
Ryan Mathews made a brief appearance early on and was cutting past blockers and breaking tackles. It has to be said that the Chargers' running game looked decent enough. Mathews even broke one long touchdown run for 56 yards.
Ultimately, the Chargers’ staff wanted to see who could make an impression and secure one of the final roster spots. To that end, there wasn't much to choose from the Chargers' perspective.
Perhaps the best performance was from reserve wide receiver Laurent Robinson, who caught six passes for 120 yards. Seyi Ajirotutu pulled in five balls for 41 yards and Tolzien's only touchdown pass of the game. Ajirotutu also went two-for-three in losing a shoe on first-down receptions.
Both of these guys are so far down the depth chart at wide receiver, it’s unlikely either will get many reps with the first team this year baring a string of injuries. But they both clearly deserve a spot on the reserve squad.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was a different story.
Larry English, Shaun Phillips and Antonio Garay were held out of the game. However, the rest of the starters were on the field as the 49ers took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 14 plays to score a go-ahead touchdown. The Chargers had the ball for six plays before Volek fumbled the ball after a San Francisco blitz. The 49ers recovered and seven plays later scored their second touchdown in as many possessions—both against the Chargers' first-string defense.
The Bolts' starting defense was uninspiring and looked lethargic. Even after the reserves took over, there was hardly a play in the 49ers backfield all game long.
The Chargers managed one sack, one hit and three tackles for a loss—all against San Francisco’s scrambling quarterbacks. Compare that to the 49ers’ numbers of six sacks, five tackles for a loss and seven quarterback hits. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how much more dominant the 49ers defense was compared to the Chargers.
There was little to no pass rush to speak of at any point during the game. The fact that it was a preseason game was irrelevant because on the other side of the ball, Aldon Smith was putting pressure on the Chargers’ quarterbacks every single play. Smith was by far the best defensive player on the field for either team, finishing with seven tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, two tackles for a loss and four hits on the Chargers’ quarterbacks. Statistically and in reality, he single-handedly outperformed the entire Chargers' defense—and he is a reserve outside linebacker.
The only true standout defensively for the Bolts was rookie Corey Liuget. Jacques Cesaire may be listed above him on the depth chart, but Liuget has proven he is the better player and will most likely start against the Minnesota Vikings next week.
When the Chargers scored a late touchdown with under two minutes left in the game, Rivers was seen laughing it up with his head coach, Norv Turner, on the sidelines. I can only hope they know something I don’t, because the last time the Chargers met the Vikings four years ago, Adrian Peterson set an NFL single game record with 296 rushing yards. That’s no laughing matter.
Then again, it’s great to see the team leaders relaxed and jovial as the preseason comes to a close and the real season is about to begin.