The 49ers won after Blaine Gabbert stole the show. That is not a misprint.
San Francisco’s embattled second-string quarterback had his best performance of the preseason, leading the team’s first touchdown drive in 2014 at the end of the second quarter, completing 6 of 7 throws. The 49ers improved to 1-2 this preseason with a 21-7 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday.
”I think the biggest thing is we just stuck to the process,” Gabbert said. “We focused on this game plan all week, got a lot of good quality reps during practice and everyone did their job.”
Gabbert had been the victim of criticism during the preseason after his struggles in the team’s first two games, leaving many to question his viability as a second-string quarterback. Gabbert may not have quelled those questions completely, but after leading an impressive touchdown drive he created a foundation to build on going forward.
“If anything I apply pressure to myself and that’s just to go out there and get better,” Gabbert said. “We wanted to put some drives together. I wish we would have scored in a couple other drives I was in there on. I will look at the tape and learn from those mistakes we had.”
The scoring drive culminated on a play-action touchdown pass to second-year tight end Vance McDonald, who had three receptions on the possession, including a leaping 17-yarder over Steve Williams to bring San Francisco to the Chargers’ 35. Williams was called for illegal contact on the play, but McDonald still made the grab.
”I think Blaine went out today playing really confident, cutting out the last two weeks,” said McDonald. “He was firing the ball and he found me open. Of course I was happy to see that.”
Gabbert came into the game with a 17.9 passer rating this preseason, but completed 6 of 8 for 63 yards at the half, good for a passer rating of 137. He stayed in the game in the third quarter and failed to get a first down in two drives behind the reserve offensive line, and without McDonald in the game.
The former Jaguar finished completing 7 of 11 with a touchdown and a 110.4 rating. He didn’t throw an interception for the first time this preseason. With the 49ers completing their exhibition slate in just four days with a game Thursday in Houston, there’s a good chance Gabbert gets another long look to help build his confidence within the offense.
Jim Harbaugh attributed last week’s 34-0 drubbing from the Broncos to a lack of precision. His team was much more precise Sunday and it started during the week in practice, he said.
Overall, his explanation was simple.
”We had some plays that were cleanly blocked,” Harbaugh. “We had some passes thrown and caught. Runners were seeing the holes. Just all 11 playing together in a more precise way.”
The 49ers’ first scoring drive came from the starters in the second quarter. Colin Kaepernick was at the helm for a 12-play, 55-yard possession that ended with a 39-yard field goal from Phil Dawson, who missed both his opportunities in the previous game against the Broncos from 55 and 44 yards.
For Dawson, splitting the uprights for the first time inside Levi’s Stadium brought him some relief.
”Absolutely. It never gets old in this business,” he said.
“I felt all the pressure in the world to come out and try to get some good experience in this stadium.”
The troubling development from the first unit was the struggles of the offensive line, who allowed Kaepernick to get hit far too many times. Former Pro-Bowl left guard Mike Iupati, who allowed right end Corey Liuget to hit Kaepernick and force a fumble the Chargers recovered at San Francisco’s 14, had one of the worst performances of his career.
”We’ll work on that,” Harbaugh said. “(We) got to be good in that area.”
Iupati was beaten repeatedly by Liuget in the first half, thwarting the 49ers’ attempt to get in any sort of rhythm early on. On the field goal drive, however, the offense began moving the ball consistently. Kaepernick completed five-straight passes to before missing on his final two, forcing the 49ers to settle on a field goal.
On the starting offense's first drive Kaepernick scrambled right, was crunched by three defenders and fumbled, but the 49ers retained the ball to punt after a replay challenge could not prove San Diego gained possession.
Kaepernick completed 6 of 12 for 59 yards on the day in an uneven performances affected by San Diego’s pressure.
”We had good plays,” Kaepernick said. “We just didn’t execute.”
Kaepernick was hit on each of his four drives by various defenders. For the most part, the 49ers did well in preventing him from taking too many shots in 2013. But he didn’t seem too concerned about it following the game.
”To me, it’s football,” he said. “You’re going to get hit.”
Dawson would add another field goal following a Jimmie Ward interception of third-string QB Brad Sorensen at the start of the fourth quarter to make it 13-7.
Ward continued to play nickel corner with the first team defense Sunday and looks to have the job locked up after it was vacated when the team released Carlos Rogers in the spring. The starting defense allowed a touchdown, but also held deep in its own territory by forcing a turnover on downs after San Diego recovered Kaepernick’s fumble.
Starters Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ian Williams all returned to action, allowing reserve defenders a breather after seeing heavy playing time in the team’s first two games, in which they were outscored 57-3.
”We finally had a chance to have our guys back out there and really just showcase a little bit of our defense,” Willis said. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than it has been.”
The 49ers continued to see development from rookies on that side of the ball. Third-round pick Chris Borland worked with the second unit after starting the first two games, and registered a team-high seven tackles. Michael Wilhoite got the start alongside Willis, indicating he is ahead of Borland in the competition to replace NaVorro Bowman to start the season.
”When things get hectic or things get a little crazy, we can talk to one another and we can play whichever spot that calls for the moments,” Willis said, of his familiarity of playing with Wilhoite.
Fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch continued to show potential with a strong performance Sunday. He had a sack and two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. He played nickel outside linebacker with the second unit, and took over all downs when the third string trickled into the game.
"If I can get a good bull-rush off, that sets up the tackles and the ends or the blitzing linebackers to get to the quarterback," Lynch said. "If you know you push the tackle into the quarterback’s lap, it stop him from being able to make a pass and it helps out our DBs and it helps out our linebackers and our other guys on the defensive line."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had a solid performance, completing 9 of 10 for 85 yards and a touchdown. He found tight end Antonio Gates for a score on a post route between Willis and Craig Dahl, who started in place of Antoine Bethea. It was the second straight game Dahl was beaten for a touchdown by a starting tight end after Peyton Manning and Julius Thomas connected for a 17-yard TD last week.
San Francisco added a touchdown in the fourth quarter when reserve running back Glenn Winston scampered 26 yards through a gaping whole on the right side. Josh Johnson found Lance Lewis on a right-side rollout to complete the two-point conversion. Winston finished with 58 yards on eight carries.
--Rookie center Marcus Martin was carted off the field in the second half with an apparent knee injury. Harbaugh did not have an update following the game, however Martin tweeted: "What don't kill me ,will only make me stronger I'll be back better than ever before , thank you everyone for the well wishes!! Love y'all!"
--The 49ers out gained Chargers the 301 to 254.
--Second-year corner Darryl Morris registered an interception late in the fourth quarter.
--LaMichael James made his preseason debut after suffering a dislocated elbow in the first week of training camp. James had 7 carries for 9 yards and an 11-yard kickoff return.
--Carlos Hyde had eight carries for 38 yards, inlcuding a 20-yard run to the left in the first half. He has 15 carries for 88 yards in three preseason games.
--Starting corner Tramaine Brock made his preseason debut, making one tackle. Brock suffered an ankle injury early in training camp.
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