The 49ers blew out the Texans 40-13 to close out the exhibition season while resting most of their starters on both sides of the ball.
However, the game did allow for reserves to get valuable reps. Young guys battling for their football future - Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and James McCray in particular - had standout evenings, making a case to land on a 53-man roster somewhere, if not with San Francisco.
Inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite didn’t play a down on defense, allowing Chris Borland to get 30 valuable reps as he continues to adjust to the NFL pace and become more assignment sound. It led to the defense’s highlight of game, when he intercepted Tom Savage on a short route to the tight end and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. Still, Wilhoite sitting is a clear indicator that he's the favorite to start in Week 1's game against Dallas.
The defense held Houston to just 155 net yards, while the 49ers amassed 377, mostly behind Josh Johnson’s very good performance completing 14 of 17 for 135 yards and three touchdowns after taking over at the end of the first half. For most of the night, the defensive front of Thomas, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Aaron Lynch dominated Houston's offensive line. Reserve inside linebacker Nick Moody also played well.
[RELATED: 49ERS 53-MAN ROSTER PROJECTION]
For a veteran team like the 49ers, it’s unlikely a fourth preseason game would do much to alter the 53-man roster. When San Francisco started training camp, they had a good idea as to which player would fill out their first and second units, making very few positions up for grabs.
Let’s take a look at the game film.
Thomas, with his fifth team since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent last year, had a big night off the right edge. It started early, stopping Alfred Blue twice over left tackle for losses. He applied pressure on a sack of Savage early in the second quarter, when he partnered with Carradine, who was flagged for illegal hands to the face on the play. Thomas also hit Savage as he threw on a pass late in the second quarter where the ball fluttered incomplete.
Carradine was a handful for Houston’s offense for most of the first half as well. On the 4th-down play, which they didn’t convert, Carradine got good pressure up the middle on Savage forcing the ball out. Skov did well to clean up the tackle on that play, helping C.J. Spillman stop DeVier Posey short of the first down. Posey fumbled after he was stripped by Spillman, but the play was reviewed and his forward progress was stopped short of the first down.
McCray will be one of the 49ers’ toughest decisions when they make final cuts. He was a standout on defense and special teams all night. He showed excellent pursuit and closing speed when he tackled Uzoma Nwachukwu for a loss on a bubble screen to the right, coming up from his safety position 10 yards from the line of scrimmage to make the tackle.
On the kickoff following his team’s first touchdown, McCray was one of the first 49ers down the field, hit the deck after fighting through a block, and still managed to get up and make the tackle at short of the 20. Thomas was also there helping to make the tackle. On the kickoff following Bruce Ellington’s touchdown, McCray was again one of the first down field, making the tackle at the 16. Lynch was flagged on the play for being offsides.
Another difficult roster decision Baalke has to make comes at cornerback. Chris Cook made a nice play on the ball in the second quarter when he intercepted Case Keenum just before the half and returned it 33 yards to the Texans’ 13. It was Cook’s second of the preseason and it led to a quick touchdown before halftime.
Cook had a good camp and improved his game since joining the 49ers after four rocky seasons in Minnesota, who used the 34th-overall pick in the 2010 to select him. Making the decision difficult is the promising young group of corners also battling for roster spots. Darryl Morris and Kenneth Acker have both played well to this point and contribute more on special teams. And with Perrish Cox around, do the 49ers need another veteran backup corner? Do the 49ers risk losing Acker, a young, promising player with upside on waivers like they did last season with Marcus Cooper? To this point, Acker has shown more than Cooper did with San Francisco last preseason.
It’s hard to imagine the 49ers keeping three quarterbacks. Johnson put his best foot forward Thursday, completing 82 percent of his passes and throwing for three scores. His throw to Lance Lewis down deep down the right sideline for 49 yards might have been the best ball a 49er quarterback has thrown this preseason.
Things came relatively easy for Johnson, particularly on his touchdown throws. He hit Ellington in the left flat from 13 yards out after he was completely lost by the Texans reserve secondary. On Kyle Nelson's first touchdown, Jawanza Starling bit hard on the play action, allowing the tight end to beat him on a short out and was get wide open for the five-yard score. A similar thing happened on Nelson’s second touchdown when the Texans’ front went for the play-action to the left while Nelson slipped out to the right for the easy pitch and catch on 4th-and-1.
It’s easy to say Johnson was more productive in the preseason than Gabbert, particularly in this game. But his night was highlighted by easy reads to wide open targets enhanced by play action, and some poor play by Houston’s reserve defense. It’s clear the offense had a different tone with Gabbert at the helm than Johnson in the four games. Johnson was aided by a number of simplified play-action looks and designed rollouts, while Gabbert’s plays and reads were more complex, getting him prepared for the regular season in the offense.
This isn’t an attempt to diminish Johnson’s good showing. But the comparison between Johnson and Gabbert isn’t as apples-to-apples as it seems on the surface.
The second-unit offensive line rounded into shape nicely this preseason. And it’s a good thing too, considering the struggles of the starters, particularly in the third preseason game against the Chargers. Left tackle Carter Bykowski played every snap on offense, giving him more experience than any other point of his young career. He played well, for the most part, while predictably struggling at times to contain former first-round pick Whitney Mercilus off the edge in the first half.
His playing time bodes well for his chance at making the 53-man roster should the 49ers keep nine linemen. If the plan was to stash him on the practice squad, perhaps he wouldn’t have been exposed to so many snaps.
It seems unlikely San Francisco would be able to get Bykowski through waivers and to the practice squad given what he put on film this preseason. With Anthony Davis coming off an injury and Jonathan Martin’s preseason inconsistencies, it might behoove the 49ers to keep Bykowski around as an insurance policy.
Ryan Seymour and Dillon Farrell each played 60 snaps, tied for second on offense behind Bykowski. Seymour’s fate could be tied to the team’s decision surrounding the injured Marcus Martin, who could be placed on injured reserve to open a roster spot after suffering a kneecap injury in last week’s game. Otherwise, Martin would have to stay on the roster or get the injured reserve/return designation, which would mean the team would be unlikely to bring back Glenn Dorsey this season. Farrell looks like a practice squad candidate.
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