Playing just 68 players, including just six healthy defensive linemen, the San Francisco 49ers were clearly undermanned in their preseason opening 23-3 loss Thursday night against the Ravens.
Given those circumstances, what showed on tape wasn’t a big surprise. The Ravens got 237 of their 386 total yards on the ground, taking advantage of the 49ers dilapidated and inexperienced defensive line.
Getting the most snaps along the defensive fronts were Tank Carradine (60) and Quinton Dial (56). Dial saw scant playing time in just three games in 2013 while rehabbing from a toe injury throughout the summer and into the regular season while Carradine was sidelined for the entire year after suffering an ACL tear at Florida State in 2012.
They needed reps, and they got them. It was clear Baltimore, who averaged just 3.1 yards per rush, last in the league in 2013, wanted to get the ground game established this preseason. Against the 49ers front lacking Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey, it was their opportunity to practice running the ball in a game situation.
Former practice squad nose tackle Mike Purcell played 50 snaps and looked in over his head for most of the night. But he was put in an awfully tough situation going against the Ravens first-team offensive line. With Dorsey likely done for the season and Ian Williams still not practicing after having four surgeries on his broken ankle since September, the 49ers will need to figure out their situation as nose tackle.
Given the way he played, Dial looks like the favorite to land the job. But he’s a far more natural end in a 3-4 scheme. And at 6’5”, it won’t be an easy transition to nose tackle. Tony Jerod-Eddie, who also had a forgettable night, will be in the mix as well.
Rookie running back Carlos Hyde had an outstanding debut playing just two series. He finished with 39 yards on five carries. But perhaps more importantly, he made a nice play in blitz pickup on a third down conversion.
Hyde’s first carry went seven yards. He got a nice block from Vance McDonald while Mike Iupati and Joe Staley pushed Haloti Ngata six yards down field. On Hyde’s 19-yard run over the left tackle he got great blocks by Stevie Johnson and Bruce Miller to hold the outside edge. The first-year back also delivered a nice finishing blow to safety Matt Elam before going out of bounds.
Johnson helped again with a nice block on Jimmy Smith on Hyde’s third carry of the drive when he bounced an inside draw to the outside. Hyde should have been given a first down, but was given a bad spot setting up 2nd-and-2.
Hyde did a nice job picking up C.J. Mosley in a 3rd-down blitz pickup up the middle allowing Blaine Gabbert to hit Johnson right at the marker on the left sideline. Smith hit Johnson hard out of bounds while the 49ers were furiously pushing for a late-hit call. Smith pushed Johnson right into Marcus Lattimore, who hit the deck, but bounced right back up. Johnson had to be restrained by Vernon Davis after the play.
The two teams will have three practices over the weekend, so don’t be surprised to read something about Johnson and Smith getting into it. It seems inevitable.
Bruce Ellington had a nice night between his work on kick returns at at receiver, where he caught all three of his targets. On the opening kickoff he showed his speed up the middle with a 32-yard return to the 27. For now, the 49ers should feel comfortable with Ellington as the primary kick and punt returner with LaMichael James out of action likely for the entire preseason.
Jonathan Martin whiffed pretty badly on a block to spring Jewel Hampton on his first carry out to the right. On his first drive at left tackle in the second quarter, he had a false start. But overall it wasn’t a terrible performance from the former Dolphin.
Martin still doesn’t look all the way back after having strength-zapping mononucleosis in the spring. He played 24 snaps and switched to left tackle in the second quarter after Joe Staley left the game. There’s plenty to clean up in his game, to be sure, but look or Martin to take gradual steps as the preseason progresses.
Ngata and Brandon Williams got into the backfield through center Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney stuffing Hampton on 3rd-and-short on the 49ers’ first drive. Both players, as expected, saw the most snaps (24) of any of the presumed starters once the regular season rolls around.
Overall the 49ers would like to see more from these two, especially knowing the type of physical defensive fronts San Francisco will see this season. Baltimore’s defensive front featuring Ngata and Williams is stiff test and provided these two a good reference point going forward.
First-round pick Jimmie Ward worked with the first team at nickel, but he also was one of the first team gunners on punt coverage opposite C.J. Spillman. Ward getting time with the first team punt coverage is something to watch. Wideout Kassim Osgood was very good in that role last year for the 49ers, but will have a very hard time cracking the roster if Ward takes over.
Ward had a nice tackle in the backfield on a running play when he blitzed from the right side. Otherwise it was a pretty nondescript debut for the team’s top pick.
The 49ers first passing play came in 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one back, one tight end). It was the incompletion to Stevie Johnson in which Pernell McPhee drove Colin Kaepernick into the ground for a roughing the passer penalty.
Don’t expect to see much from Kaepernick in the preseason. Hits like the one he took from McPhee are the reason why.
-----McDonald had a nice game making two receptions and continuing to prove he’s a capable blocker in the running game. McDonald could become a nice safety valve for Kaepernick with so many other options available in the passing game this season. But he needs to cut down the drops, which have been prevalent during training camp.
On fullback Kyle Jusczyk's 17-yard reception, rookie Chris Borland bit hard on the play action fake allowing the Jusczyk to get behind him down the middle of the field. Vic Fangio said last week Borland often gets himself into trouble by being overaggressive and this was a prime example.
Borland made a nice tackle on special teams in the open field on punt coverage in the second quarter. Given the defensive line’s struggles, there weren’t many opportunities for Borland to make plays. But he still looked pretty good in his pro debut.
In a theme that was apparent throughout the night, the 49ers’ defensive front often got pushed off the ball. On the Ravens’ first drive, the line of Purcell, Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs struggled to get any push against the Ravens starting offensive line.
On Bernard Pierce’s 2-yard touchdown run over right guard, Lawrence Okoye, Purcell, Dial and Carradine made up the 49ers' defensive front. In a regular season game Dial might be the only one of those players in during goal line situations. Carradine has shown he’s a far better pass rusher than run stopper at this point.
But Carradine did register a sack on Tyrod Taylor at the end of the first quarter. He threw tackle Ryan Jensen to the left and hit Taylor with some force for an eight-yard loss. Harbaugh had talked about Carradine’s heavy hands in camp and they were on full display on the sack.
Dial wound up leading the way with 10 combined tackles on the 49ers’ undermanned front. He forced two fumbles. Dial showed his strength in the second quarter when he reached into Pierce’s hands and punched the ball out on a run up the middle. However, Pierce landed right on it. The 49ers recovered Dial’s second forced fumble when he ripped the ball away from Justin Forsett.
Okoye received more snaps Thursday (21) than he got all last preseason (18). He's shown improvement, but still winds up out-leveraged far more often than not.
Chris Cook had an interception in the third quarter, three days after making two interceptions during practice inside Levi’s Stadium. Cook made 29 starts with the Vikings without making an interception while many questioned his ball skills. It was an easy play to make against Taylor, but Cook is continuing to show good signs early in camp as a nice option as a reserve cornerback.
Michael Wilhoite had a sack on a blitz from the strong side on Taylor in the second quarter. He read that Corey Lemonier and Dial occupied the right tackle and guard and got to Taylor unblocked for a seven-yard loss.
Lemonier led the defense with 70 snaps played and had a sack later in the game. It's clear the 49ers want him to become a more versatile player in base situations after contributing mostly as a nickel pass rusher in his rookie season.
Gabbert got bailed out with a bad first throw when he tried to hit Johnson on a back shoulder throw to the right and corner Chykie Brown was flagged for illegal contact. On his second-quarter interception, he stared down Derek Carrier and didn’t see Asa Jackson playing zone before it was too late.
Gabbert was inaccurate with his throws and didn’t progress through too many reads. It was a rough night for him. But given his guaranteed contract paying him $2 million, it’s hard to see a scenario in which he doesn’t make the team. And he’s had a better camp than what he showed Thursday.
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.