Let’s first put this into perspective. San Francisco’s 20-17 victory last night over San Diego was, of course, a preseason game; and by all accounts, the game really didn’t mean all that much.
But after a preseason in which the Niners played utterly horrible in two of their last three games—a 24-3 loss to the Saints in Week 1 and a 30-7 loss to the Texans last week—last night’s contest showed a San Francisco team that actually looked competent at their jobs. And they needed to prove that before heading into next week’s matchup in Seattle.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five players who proved something last night against the Chargers.
He lasted just one quarter, as head coach Jim Harbaugh shuffled his quarterbacks around, but Alex Smith had a very nice first period. He went 8-for-10 for 45 yards and played pretty intelligently, not rushing the passes despite a few plays where the San Diego defense broke through and was hounding on him.
Smith brought the Niners up the field on the first drive of the game with a flurry of short 4- to 8-yard passes, showing again that he can play in the West Coast offense. The one scary play early was a five-yard pass to Ted Ginn, who appeared to be in fairly strong coverage. The ball bounced off Ginn’s hands, but he recovered it for a first down at the San Diego five-yard line.
While Smith didn’t get a score (his touchdown to Josh Morgan was overturned after the refs ruled Morgan hadn’t broken the plane), he looked very effective and didn’t overthink himself.
After the game, Harbaugh told the media that Smith would be the starter for the opening season contest against the Seahawks. As if that was really a question.
Anthony Dixon scores both the rushing touchdowns on the day, but Kendall Hunter cemented himself as the backup running back.
"He's running very efficiently," Harbaugh said after the game. "I think he just keeps getting better and better the more he's in this style of offense."
Hunter played fantastic, especially on the first drive of the game, where he swerved and dived through the San Diego defense. The Chargers couldn’t keep their hands on the 5-foot-7 rookie, and he finished with 57 yards on 11 carries. He also added an excellent 51-yard kick return in the second quarter.
Both times San Francisco got in the red zone, it was Dixon who got the ball and punched it through. Dixon finished with 13 carries and 45 yards.
Yet anyone who watched the game could easily tell which runner was more effective. Hunter earned himself that second-string running back spot, and if—heaven forbid—an injury were to strike down Frank Gore, the San Francisco faithful can feel comfortable with him.
When linebacker Takeo Spikes left San Francisco to join San Diego this offseason, much was made about NaVorro Bowman—a second-year player from Penn State—replacing him on the inside.
Bowman proved last night that he has the talent when he swerved through the Charges offensive line, sacked quarterback Billy Volek, punched the ball out and dove on it for the fumble recovery at the San Diego 22-yard line.
That set up the Niners second touchdown of the evening. But it also showed why Niners fans are excited about the second-year inside linebacker.
Linebacker Aldon Smith continued to have a fantastic preseason and proved again on Thursday that he has fantastic potential.
He finished with seven tackles, six solo tackles and 2.5 sacks. He broke through the San Diego line twice in the second quarter, taking out Scott Tolzien both times.
While he may not be starter ready quite yet, his potential is obvious. And when he’s ready, the Niners linebacker core of Smith, Bowman and Patrick Willis look pretty dang scary.
With second-round quarterback Colin Kaepernick looking extremely shakey in the preseason, it was great to see that Josh McCown, who was signed during the preseason, play pretty well in limited action.
McCown went 4-for-4 for 51 yards, including a 33-yard bomb to Xaiver Omon. While no one expects McCown to compete for the starting job—at least not now, given that Smith has won the position—it was good to see the veteran quarterback come in and play with confidence.
If Smith struggles early and Coach Harbaugh doesn’t feel Kaepernick is ready (and at this point, he is anything but), McCown could prove to have been an excellent pickup.