Preseason games don’t usually kick off on Sunday afternoons like they do the regular season, but because the 49ers-Broncos tilt will be the first ever football game at Levi’s Stadium, it’s being treated as a dress rehearsal for all involved.
There could be some advantage to that from San Francisco’s point of view. Their next preseason game against the Chargers will also be a 1 p.m. kickoff, so they will have a chance to feel out a regular season schedule before the final exhibition game four days later in Houston.
The most notable aspect the team’s 23-3 loss to Baltimore in the preseason opener was its inability to stop the run, where it allowed 237 yards to the Ravens. Being undermanned along the defensive line certainly didn’t help. But there were still a few subpar performances that will need to be improved upon going forward (a full film breakdown of that game can be found here.).
Jim Harbaugh said Friday he expects the plan to be about the same in Sunday’s game as it was in the opener, meaning scant play from the starters - perhaps a series or two on both sides of the ball.
Here’s a look at a few positions to watch Sunday that still need to be sorted out:
Gabbert didn’t look much better in Friday afternoon’s practice inside Levi’s Stadium, continuing his trend of air-mailing throws and missing open targets. His inaccuracy even led to a smattering of boos from fans in attendance.
When asked about his backup quarterback situation prior to Friday’s practice Jim Harbaugh continued his staunch support for Gabbert, who, in all honesty, is playing like he needs it.
"Nothing is set in stone, but very pleased with the job Blaine Gabbert’s doing," Harbaugh said.
The sticking point for Gabbert has always been his guaranteed $2 million salary for 2014. If the 49ers had a way to wipe it clean from the books they likely would. Last year No. 2 quarterback Colt McCoy played just 22 snaps. If Kaepernick stays healthy again, then Gabbert’s play could be a non-issue. But a good performance Sunday could do a lot for the fourth-year quarterback.
Josh Johnson has put some heat on Gabbert, but again, would really have to play well for the team to decide to eat Gabbert’s $2 million and give him the No. 2 job. And given the depth on the roster, it doesn’t appear the 49ers would want to keep three quarterbacks.
Look for McLeod Bethel-Thompson to get mop-up duty once again.
The unsettling development of the week for the 49ers has to be the absence of Patrick Willis from practice. While the team was in pads, Willis was in a jersey in shorts. He didn’t appear to be dealing with anything major, but the cause for his absence has not been disclosed.
Willis was unable to stay healthy at the beginning of last season, breaking his hand early in training camp and then dealing a lingering groin issue that never appeared to fully heal. Don’t expect Willis to play Sunday after he stayed on the sideline in Baltimore.
That will allow for Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland to get a high volume of reps for the second-straight game. Behind the team’s struggling defensive line, both linebackers found themselves floundering against offensive linemen who were able to get to the second level in running plays. The return of the starting D-line might help there for one or two drives, but it will be important for both to show improvement behind the reserve D-linemen.
Vic Fangio reiterated this week the competition to replace NaVorro Bowman remains even between Wilhoite and Borland. During Friday’s practice Borland continued to get his work at the Mike position while Wilhoite played Jack.
Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd both returned to action this week. Crabtree admitted afterwards he had been dealing with a minor hamstring strain that had kept him out for the last two weeks. He said he could play if asked, but putting Crabtree back on the field to risk injury during preseason game No. 2 isn't the prudent move. He's had a strong camp and is playing at 15 to 20 pounds lighter than last season after returning from his Achilles tear.
Lloyd didn’t play in the loss to the Ravens, and will need to prove himself when the real bullets start flying. He’s been spry during practice, but has missed more than a week while dealing with an undisclosed injury. There might not be room on the roster for a fourth receiver that doesn’t play on special teams, so Lloyd will need a strong performance to make his roster stock rise. Or, at the very least, but together some good film for the 31 other teams in the league.
Bruce Ellington worked mostly with the reserves in the second half in Baltimore, and could be in line for more work with the first and second units Sunday. He’s done much of his work from the slot - where the 49ers have struggled to find a consistent option in recent seasons. Ellington will also work in the return game with LaMichael James likely sidelined despite returning to practice this week from his dislocated elbow. He muffed a punt during Friday’s practice inside Levi’s, so look for him to get as much work in the new stadium as possible as he and his teammates try to figure out the unfamiliar wind patterns.
Quinton Patton played 17 snaps against the Ravens and went reception-less in three targets while working mostly with Gabbert. Patton’s had a good camp and could some valuable preseason reps after making just three catches his rookie season. Don’t expect more than two drives for Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson.
The undermanned unit that got steamrolled for much of the night has a game under it’s belt and won’t likely be overmatched physically the way it was early in Baltimore. Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine both received a ton of valuable reps to the point of exhaustion, but as long as they don’t get worn down too much, the 49ers won’t mind keeping the backups in good shape behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, who both returned to practice Wednesday.
Ian Williams is also back, although it remains to be seen if he will play just a few days after returning for the first time since breaking his ankle that required four surgeries. That means it could be another chance for backup nose tackle Mike Purcell to see extensive playing time.
Lawrence Okoye did not practice Friday after suffering a lower leg injury against the Ravens. He could use the reps perhaps more than any other defensive linemen, but like Williams, it’s unclear if he will play.
Tony Jerod-Eddie could use a bounce-back performance, as could Demarcus Dobbs.
The Martins, Jonathan and Marcus, could both really use solid performances Sunday. Marcus has seen his practice time increase over the last week despite not playing in last week’s game. It’s clear his ankle is far from 100 percent and it’s affected his conditioning. The competition many believed he would have with Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job has not materialized. And the team will need him to be able to play along the interior should a starter suffer an injury as long as Alex Boone remains away from the team.
Jonathan Martin returned to practice Friday after missing sessions earlier in the week for undisclosed reasons. Martin did not put together a very strong performance in the opener and will continue to get reps at both tackle spots. As long as Boone, likely the team’s third-best tackle, continues his holdout, Martin will be a key figure along the line during the preseason.
Look for Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney to continue to get more playing time the stalwarts on the left side, Joe Staley and Mike Iupati.
Aaron Lynch did not play a single snap on defense in last week’s game while he was being eased back after missing the first week of camp with his hamstring injury. Lynch said his weight is back up to 276 after he fell to the 250-pound range during his last two seasons at South Florida due, in part, to the use of Adderall.
But thanks to a new meal plan and his work in the weight room, Lynch is the team’s biggest outside linebacker and he’s looking more like the player that had first-round potential during his first season at Notre Dame. He’s still very raw, but physically he’s impressive.
Not all the weight has been good weight, however. Lynch’s strength is there, but the influx of weight might be hindering his stamina along with his injury he’s dealt with over the last two months.
“Fat is the enemy of speed,” Harbaugh said. “His body fat, we’re trying to bring it down.”
While Corey Lemonier is likely to get a bulk of snaps again at outside linebacker, look for Lynch to get a long look as well, particularly in nickel situations rushing the passer. For players transitioning from defensive line to a standup position, Fangio has used them primarily in pass rush situations in their first pro seasons with Lemonier and Aldon Smith being the obvious examples.
Other Injury Notes
Tight end Vance McDonald and running back/return man LaMichael James both returned to practice this week wearing blue non-contact jerseys. It appears neither is likely to play Sunday…Tramaine Brock has returned to the practice field after suffering an ankle sprain during the first week of camp, but has yet to participate in team drills. It’s unlikely he will play…Fellow corner Chris Cook also returned but didn’t participate in team drills either. His status is up in the air…Reserve lineman Adam Snyder was back and did participate in team drills getting most of his snaps at left guard with the second team.
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