49ers vs. Chargers: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers in their 20-17 win over San Diego in Thursday's preseason finale, including QBs Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Josh McCown, a West Coast offense opening drive, RB Kendall Hunter, FB Moran Norris, OGs Mike Iupati and Chilo Rachal blowing up defenders, WR Ted Ginn, LBs Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman, a relentless pass rush and much more? Check inside.


Thumbs up: So how about that first-team offense going right down the field with the game's opening drive, an efficient 14-play, 80-yard march through the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense? The Niners didn't come close to assembling a drive such as this in the first three preseason games, but this was a thing of West Coast offense beauty, taking what the defense gives and converting twice on third downs to keep moving in time-consuming fashion toward the end zone.

Thumbs up: He still has a lot to prove once the real games begin, but Alex Smith looked like a real quarterback again, completing five of his six throws while directing the game-opening TD drive and leading the 49ers to touchdowns on both of their first two possessions. Smith finished 8 of 10 for 45 yards through the air and also showed nice pocket presence to break away on a seven-yard scramble that picked up a first down.

Thumbs down: With two more interceptions Thursday, rookie second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick finished with five picks and no touchdown passes to show for his first NFL preseason. Kaepernick, who also was sacked once to raise his preseason total to eight, needs to get rid of the ball quicker and learn that underthrown red-zone passes at this level can quickly turn into interceptions that rob your team of points.

Thumbs up: There's a lot to be excited about with rookie running back Kendall Hunter, the 49ers new offensive weapon. The NFL's leading preseason rusher entering the game, Hunter broke off a series of impressive runs while gaining 46 yards on San Francisco's first offensive series. He's also a threat on special teams, ripping off a 51-yard kickoff return.

Thumbs down: Starting safety Madieu Williams and cornerback Carlos Rogers both looked stuck in the mud as Ryan Mathews blew by them on his way to a 56-yard run for San Diego's first touchdown. Williams took a horrible angle and allowed Mathews to get past the last line of defense without even laying a hand on him.

Thumbs up: Eleventh-year veteran Moran Norris is in danger of losing his job at fullback to rookie Bruce Miller, but Norris answered the challenge Thursday with his best game of the preseason. Norris had several nice blocks to open holes in the running game, and he also delivered on his first and only touch of the preseason, reaching up to grab an Alex Smith pass to keep San Francisco's opening drive churning forward.

Thumbs up: What a game for rookie defenders Demarcus Dobbs and Aldon Smith, who dominated their San Diego counterparts several times when paired on the same side of the field in passing situations. Smith finished with game-high totals of seven tackles and 2.5 sacks for 22 yards in losses. Dobbs helped him get those numbers, providing inside pressure that pushed San Diego linemen backward and allowed Smith to finish off plays.

Thumbs down: It just didn't seem right seeing Takeo Spikes wearing No. 51 for the other team. There, we said it. Spikes was such a good 49er and stand-up veteran that he's still remembered and missed here even though he's down south now with former 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.

Thumbs up: That said, the 49ers are feeling mighty good about the guy that replaced Spikes. NaVorro Bowman capped off a strong summer and solid preseason with another fine effort during the brief time he was in the game with San Francisco's first defensive unit. Bowman got the linebacker trifecta on San Diego's first offensive series, when he charged in on a blitz, sidestepped a Chargers running back for an 11-yard sack on quarterback Billy Volek, then stripped Volek of the ball and recovered the fumble at the San Diego 22-yard line to set up San Francisco's second touchdown.

Thumbs up: It was great to see starting guards Mike Iupati and Chilo Rachal blowing up San Diego defenders to keep San Francisco's run game surging forward when they were in the game. It was by far the best effort for both this preseason, and brought back memories of Iupati's strong play at the end of his rookie season last year.

Thumbs up: With hands like that, maybe Ted Ginn Jr. does deserve to remain in the starting lineup once the regular season begins. Ginn set the offensive tone for the 49ers by reaching high in the air and using both hands to make a tough eight-yard reception on the game's first play from scrimmage. That's a pass Ginn would have dropped in the past. He added another catch in heavy traffic near the goal line later in the drive.

Thumbs up: The 49ers applied consistent and sometimes relentless pressure on San Diego quarterbacks throughout the game. It began early with Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks putting the heat on Volek on San Diego's first set of downs and continued until the finish. The 49ers finished with six sacks, just one fewer than the total of their first three exhibition games combined.

Thumbs up: One thing is for sure: Braylon Edwards is going to be a heck of a red-zone target for the 49ers. Edwards set up San Francisco's second touchdown by taking a reception in traffic inside the 5-yard line, and also made a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone on the next play that would have been a spectacular touchdown grab had Edwards been able to keep his feet in-bounds.

Thumbs up: The play of Tramaine Brock, Phillip Adams and rookie Bruce Miller on special teams could go far in helping those young men make the final roster.

Thumbs down: Second-year linebacker Keaton Kristick got carted off the field after a San Diego lineman stumbled into him at the end of a play and landed on the back of his left leg, driving it into the ground awkwardly.

Thumbs up: Showing up big in a game he needed to, backup inside linebacker Alex Joseph made his pitch for the final roster with three tackles and a fumble recovery to go along with some big hits that certainly were felt by certain Chargers.

Thumbs up: It was a calming effect to see veteran quarterback Josh McCown come in and lead the 49ers on a scoring drive, completing all four of his passes for a team-high 51 yards and looking very much like he could step in at the position should Alex Smith falter or get hurt.

Thumbs up: After getting beat for some big plays in which he was in good position in coverage, rookie cornerback Chris Culliver came up big in the end with an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter that effectively sealed the victory for the 49ers.

Thumbs down: Since his specialty is being a special teams ace, Blake Costanzo didn't do himself any favors with a personal foul penalty that tacked on an extra 15 yards to San Diego's return of the second-half kickoff.

Thumbs up: Before that, however, the 49ers ended the first half with just one penalty for five yards, definitely the kind of discipline and efficiency they and their coaches are looking for.

Thumbs up: All in all, the 49ers couldn't have put together a much better game to finish a rocky exhibition season. With a 2-2 preseason finish, the Niners left San Diego having built some much-needed confidence and momentum heading into the regular season.


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