Don’t jump to too many conclusions after the San Francisco 49ers’ first preseason loss on Saturday. While it would be easy to write off the starters, who had trouble dealing with both the Texans offense and defense, you have to remember who wasn’t playing.
The first-team offense was only in for one series—and we would be talking about how great they looked if Colin Kaepernick’s long bomb was just a step shorter for Torrey Smith—and the defense was missing probable starting linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite and Aaron Lynch. That’s not to say you can completely ignore the poor performance by the starting offensive line, or the issues in coverage the starting cornerbacks had, but just that you should take things with a few grains of salt.
One thing that does seem clear, however, is that the 49ers run defense looks ready to go. Admittedly, the Texans are in a bit of a running game quandary with the loss of Arian Foster, but they had issues getting the ball going on the ground. Subtract out Alfred Blue’s one 32-yard run, and they averaged only 2.6 yards per carry. Even with Blue’s one long run, a 3.2 yards-per-carry defense would have been the best in the NFL last season, if they could keep that up.
More importantly, because the 49ers will be rotating their defensive line a lot more in 2015, a lot of the reserves who took part in those run-stopping plays could end up playing a significant portion of the snaps next season. So, while it’s obviously great that Ian Williams and Quinton Dial looked ready to go, seeing players like Mike Purcell getting in on the action too bodes well for the future.
While the 49ers run defense played well all game long, it was the goal-line stand in the first quarter that was the highlight of the night—and likely more important for 2015 than Jarryd Hayne’s breakout performance.
On their second drive, the Texans had 10 plays inside the 49ers’ 10-yard line and six from just a yard out. They came away with no points, though they probably would have kicked a field goal had this been an actual regular season game. That’s still a tremendous performance for the 49ers defense and worth taking a closer look.
All photos from Game Pass, with apologies for any blur.
Play 1: 2nd and 8, 10-yard line. Kenny Hilliard up the middle for 1 yard, tackled by Shayne Skov
Shayne Skov spent last year on the practice squad both in San Francisco and Tampa Bay and has a real chance of grabbing a roster slot thanks to the departures of Chris Borland and Patrick Willis. PFF gave him the second-highest grade of any 49er against the Texans, including the highest grade in run support—helped, of course, by the fact that he played the entire game.
On this play, he got great backfield penetration and managed to grab Hilliard’s foot, setting him for Antoine Bethea to finish off the tackle for a minimal gain and win for the 49ers.
Play 2: 3rd and 7, 9-yard line. Ryan Mallett pass short right to Alan Bonner for 6 yards, tackled by Antoine Bethea and Nick Moody
Holding a team to six yards on 3rd-and-7 is a win for the defense, as Bethea, Moody and Dontae Johnson converged to make the tackle before Bonner could pass the first-down marker. However, the reason it was a completion in the first place was thanks to poor play by the 49ers pass defense.
The Texans lined up in a bunch formation to the right, with two receivers and a tight end lined up to the right. Bonner was the outside receiver, but ran an inside route, causing outside corner Johnson to instead cover the tight end on a flat route. It looked like it was Moody’s job to step inside and cover Bonner, but he crashed into Tramaine Brock, who was being blocked by the other receiver on the inside. That was enough of a pick to let Bonner get into open space on the right and make the completion.
The 49ers did struggle in pass defense this game—they had little in the way of pass rush and allowed Houston to throw for 254 yards, 8.8 yards per attempt. I’d chalk this completion up to a good play design by the offense rather than a mistake by the defense, but it’s something that San Francisco is going to have to cover better in the future.
Play 3: 4th and 1, 3-yard line. Alfred Blue left guard for 2 yards, tackled by Eric Reid and Moody
In a real game, the Texans would have likely kicked a field goal here, but with the actual outcome being meaningless, they went for it. They went into a jumbo package against San Francisco’s goal-line defense and cracked a hole between Quinton Dial and Eli Harold, with the fullback taking out Antoine Bethea before he could stuff him cold. Reid and Moody saved the touchdown as the third line of defense.
Play 4: 1st and Goal, 1-yard line. Jay Prosch right guard for no gain, tackled by Bethea and Skov
You can see in the photo—Bethea is free and unblocked and hits Prosch low, standing him up. Give Prosch full credit—he stays up and keeps trying to head forwards, but his momentum is essentially set to zero. Skov then has the presence of mind to bounce out from the inside mess he’s stuck in to deliver the blow that actually knocks Prosch down. It’s likely Corey Lemonier would have been there had Skov not broken free, but Lemonier was engaged as well—it’s possible he wouldn’t have had enough juice to stop Prosch from crossing the plane, so it was a very nice heads-up play by Skov to get over.
Play 5: 2nd and Goal, 1-yard line. Blue left end for -3 yards, tackled by Mike Purcell
No one got higher PFF grade for the 49ers than Mike Purcell did, which is impressive as he played only 23 snaps. He recorded five “stops”—solo defensive tackles which made the offensive fail. This was one of them, as Purcell just cruised right through center James Ferentz as if he wasn’t there to flatten Blue.
It’s fair to note that Ferentz is not Houston’s starting center, but that doesn’t make the physicality of Purcell less impressive on this play. An undrafted free agent from 2013, Purcell finally made his way up to the main roster at the end of last season. It’s a tough battle to make the roster at defensive line, considering the 49ers used recent high draft picks on Arik Armstead and Tank Carradine, signed free agent Darnell Dockett and have excellent contributors in Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey and Quinton Dial. Could Purcell make the final roster over someone like Tony Jerod-Eddie? If he keeps playing like he did in Houston, he at least will make a strong argument for himself.
Play 6: 3rd and Goal, 4-yard line. Mallet passes incomplete to Bonner, but Tramaine Brock is flagged for pass interference
Brock never got his head around, working out of the slot position against Bonner. Bonner beat him to the outside, and Brock stuck his hand in Bonner’s chest and ended up guiding him to the ground. If Brock had been turned 180 degrees around and still had his hands where they were, he might have gotten away with it, but no ref in the world is going to allow hand-fighting if you’re not looking back to the ball.
Brock had a poor game in general—this was the only play that specifically targeted him, so one attempt and one pass interference call isn’t great. We also saw him have trouble working over the middle in the second play here, and those weren’t the only two instances. He’s moving to the inside position in the nickel for the first time; Carlos Rogers handled that duty in 2013 when Brock broke into the starting lineup. He clearly needs a bit more work, or he could move back to the outside when Jimmy Ward is healthy.
Play 7: 1st and Goal, 1-yard line. Hilliard right end for no gain, tackled by Purcell and Moody
Watching live, I thought the Texans were going to score here. Hilliard had solid blocking from his fullback and tight end, sealing Bethea out of the play. Purcell managed to go sideways down the line of scrimmage, however, freeing himself from Ben Jones to make the initial hit, with Moody delivering the blow to keep him out of the end zone. It was great work by Purcell to disengage and follow the play down the line of scrimmage—he moved well for a 300-pounder.
Play 8: 2nd and Goal, 1-yard line. Hilliard left tackle for no gain, tackled by Quinton Dial
Quinton Dial came on very strong in the second half of 2014, and he’s one of the most promising players on the defensive line for this upcoming season. He’s shifting back to defensive end from nose tackle and likely will be the starter, or at least he should get a large number of carries on running downs.
On this play, it was Moody who actually smashed into the backfield first, blowing up the lead fullback and forcing Hilliard to slow down. That gave Dial enough time to free himself from Ben Jones and make the stop. Jones had a terrible night in run defense, regularly getting destroyed by Dial, Purcell and Ian Williams. The 49ers’ defensive line was just too strong for him.
Play 9: 3rd and Goal, 1-yard line. Jonathan Grimes up the middle for no gain, tackled by Eli Harold and Bethea
Eli Harold was my favorite 49ers draft pick this season, representing a great value in the third round. With Aldon Smith off the team now, he has the chance to play a major role this season, especially if Aaron Lynch doesn’t get in shape from his hamstring injury.
Harold had an up-and-down day—PFF charted him with three quarterback pressures and a defensive stop, which is good, but also had him giving up two receptions, which isn’t so good. On this play, he mostly just takes the entire offensive line with him to the left, getting in the hole and forcing Grimes to try to stutter-step and cut back. That slows him down for the rest of the team to swarm and tackle him.
Play 10: 4th and Goal, 1-yard line. Alfred Blue up the middle for no gain, tackled by Reid and Shareece Wright
After initially lining up for a field goal, the Texans called time out and decided to try to plow it through one more time for a touchdown. While in a regular season game, they likely would have played it safe and taken the field goal, it’s likely better over the long run to actually attempt to score here, and it's not completely out of the question in general.
They subbed Blue, their top running back, back into the game, and he tried to simply jump over the line and score. He was met in mid-air, however, by a number of players—first and foremost, safety Eric Reid. That stonewalled him enough for the rest of the defensive line to bring him down, causing the turnover on downs.
It was quite the impressive performance. It was one of the few highlights Jim Tomsula mentioned in his post-game press conference. “I’m really happy that arose for us to see where we are,” he said. “That was team defense. It was good to have the opportunity to see that.”
The run defense of players like Purcell, Skov, Reid, Moody and Dial gives the 49ers defense something to build on going forward. While Jarryd Hayne’s debut got most of the post-game headlines, it’s the play of San Francisco’s run defense that should give 49ers fans the most hope going into the regular season.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.