The 49ers made undeniable progress from their first exhibition game to their second. What kind of step will they take tonight against the Houston Texans at Candlestick Park? With the season opener now a mere 15 days away, here are some things to watch as the Niners continue their search for more defined answers about the team they'll be putting on the field the next time they play at the ‘Stick.
It won't necessarily be a heavy dose of San Francisco's presumed starters into the second half tonight, which is the way most NFL teams traditionally do it in the third preseason game, which typically is considered "the dress rehearsal" for the regular season. Jim Harbaugh's first-half plan is first-teamers with a twist – mixing in a handful of key reserves to see what they can do against front-line players on the other side of the football. "The idea of playing some of our twos and threes more in this game is also the way that we're leaning going into this ball game," Harbaugh said this week. "Not so much the traditional way of playing the starters for three quarters like has been historically done in the third preseason game. And the reason for that is there are guys that are fighting for their life, their football life, and we want them to have the ability to play in this game, but also to see them against other starters, see them against the Texans' starters."
Speaking of going against those Texans' starters… This will be an excellent test for San Francisco's revamped secondary, which figures to face at least one half of action against quarterback Matt Schaub
, receiver supreme Andre Johnson
and the rest of a Houston passing game that ranked fourth in the NFL last season. The 49ers won't see much better this season, and since front-line performers are expected to get their longest stint of the preseason tonight … well, this will give a San Francisco starting defense that has been dominant so far in August a good opportunity to see where it really stands.
Brock 'n Brown
And where that secondary really stands could have a lot to do with how youngsters Tramaine Brock
and Tarell Brown
can stand up to the heat that will certainly be coming their way as long as they remain in the legitimate running for the team's No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback roles. With erstwhile starter Shawntae Spencer
's status remaining in limbo because of a hamstring problem, Brock and Brown are being auditioned for the possible lead role at right cornerback, which figures to be a position that will be targeted all season by San Francisco opponents as they look to exploit the weakest points of what promises to be a sturdy defensive unit in 2011. Brown is currently listed ahead of Brock on the team's unofficial depth chart, but Brock has stared the first two preseason games and has been with the first unit most of the summer, so this is a battle that bears watching tonight and again when the 49ers hit the field five days later for their exhibition finale in San Diego.
While you're watching how it shakes out with Brock and Brown, keep an eye also on third-round draft pick Chris Culliver
, who has been under the radar most of the summer but is making incremental progress in his development as a pro cornerback after playing mostly safety last year at South Carolina. Culliver most certainly is being groomed as a future starter, and that future could be quickly accelerated to the near present if he displays that he can hold up in coverage on a consistent basis. The 49ers have had a history of throwing highly-regarded rookie cornerback prospects into the fray sooner rather than later – think Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright in 1981 and Tim McKyer and Don Griffin in 1986 – and while Culliver doesn't measure up at this point to some of those names, he might possess more pure talent than others the 49ers are considering for the Nos. 2 and 3 cornerback roles behind No. 1 Carlos Rogers
How much of Gore?
With all the speculation swirling around Frank Gore
and his reported "frustration" regarding how much the 49ers are using him in preseason games without giving him the new contract he's seeking, might the team just decide not to play him at all tonight? There's certainly no pressing need to put Gore on the field against the Texans, particularly if it will only add to his mounting unhappiness. If there is one player on the San Francisco roster that doesn't need the work and that the Niners don't need to see anything from tonight, it is Gore. With a powwow between Gore, his agent and team officials apparently set for Monday, why not just give him the night off as a goodwill gesture to ease tensions?
And besides, holding out Gore would just give the 49ers more opportunities to study the three players behind him on the depth chart as the team determines how many of them to keep on the final roster. Anthony Dixon
is listed second behind Gore, but slippery Kendall Hunter
and bruising Xavier Omon
had better training camps and also have been better in exhibition games. There could be room on the roster for all three halfbacks behind Gore, but only if they continue to make themselves essential to the final roster. Omon apparently is the guy on the spot here, and the 49ers could use more game information before they decide one way or the other.
Center of attention
To the surprise of many, Adam Snyder
still is working today as the 49ers' starting center and likely will be the man who puts the team's first offensive snap between his legs tonight. But how soon will he be giving way to Jonathan Goodwin, or will Snyder be giving way at all? If Goodwin is to be San Francisco's opening-day starter at the position, as many still expect, he needs to start getting more comfortable with the first unit in combat, and tonight's performance of both players will go a long way toward determining whether the 49ers make the move to Goodwin now or decide to wait and see how Snyder holds up for another week, and perhaps even into the regular season.
Watch your back
Not to be flippant about a very serious subject, but after last week's debacle at Candlestick Park, where there were donnybrook brawls in the stands during the game, a man beaten unconscious in an upper-level bathroom late in the game, and two men shot in the parking lot after the game, it would behoove fans to step lightly and keep their eyes open during the next-week aftermath of that ugly evening, even if it won't be the Raiders on the opposite sideline this time. Even with increased security, there will always be a few yahoos and knuckleheads roaming the ‘Stick who simply don't give a damn.