SANTA CLARA, Calif. - When the 2015 season is over, it's unlikely we'll look back on Saturday's preseason-opening loss to the Houston Texans and find any "ah-hah" moments. That's the nature of preseason football. The four-game exhibition season is an oversaturated sample size, created for monitizing more than team building.
But as long as games are played, they give us something to look at and expand upon. The real question: is any of it tangible? Does a blown coverage in an otherwise vanilla defensive scheme mean that player is worse than someone else who was perfect in coverage? Does an ill-timed route by a receiver tell us that he has no chemistry with the quarterback, or is that one play an outlier? Football in August is the chase for answers in black and white. But preseason football is a world of gray.
Rosters are giant puzzles, and they're built for pieces to fit flush. A preseason game is like dumping all the puzzle pieces on the table and ignoring the picture on the box.
Because rosters are big (90 players) at this time of year, and so many different combinations of players are trotted out during training camp, we're led to believe that individual performances tell us what matters on the field. In reality, football is a game of cohesion and timing. And unless a team has been together for a while (hint: these 49ers have not), teams will not be in sync. The goal at the end of training camp is to become that cohesive unit in time for the start of the regular season.
So when going back through Saturday night's game, that's what we'll look at. Were 11 players in white doing what they were supposed to do? How much of what happened affects a player's standing while he competes for a roster spot? Who stood out, and who has work to do?
Give new head coach Jim Tomsula credit for understanding the process and painting the right picture.
"In terms of the players, from the sidelines, to operation, to the communication, to the huddles, to personnel and getting the reps on some people we wanted to see in a game situation. To getting guys paired up and seeing different people play together," Tomsula said Sunday. "All of those things we were able to get. We did get a good beat on some guys. All those guys we feel real good about."
With that being said, let's get to the tape. New this year: Vines!
--Second-year tight end Vance McDonald was the third player down the field covering the opening kickoff, helping L.J. McCray and Marcus Cromartie tackle Houston's return man at the 13-yard line. McDonald has come under fire for his lack or production in the passing game, but could help himself drastically if he plays well on special teams. But on San Francisco's first play from scrimmage, McDonald was called for an obvious hold Whitney Mercilus negating an 8-yard run by Carlos Hyde.
--On the Texans' first running play to Alfred Blue, nose tackle Ian Williams recognized the play early and beat blue to the right side of the field before he could turn the corner. Williams has been very good during training camp, and even earned reps in the nickel package Saturday, when nose tackles normally leave the field.
--Outside linebacker Corey Lemonier did well to recognize play action from Brian Hoyer, and knock his pass down as he tried to hit his target in the flat. Lemonier didn't provide much in terms of a pass rush and is looking like a candidate to play on base downs. But he'll have to get better at setting the edge. On a third-and-1 play on the second drive, he was pushed back by a tight end, allowing Blue to get the first down on the outside.
--On Cecil Shorts III 58-yard touchdown to cap the opening drive, the 49ers sent four pass rushers on third-and-8. Shorts got behind Nick Moody and Shayne Skov, before crossing in front of Antoine Bethea, who didn't exactly seem eager to strain himself for the open field tackle. The 49ers looked like they were in cover 3, and Shorts found the soft spot in the zone in front of Bethea. In the regular season? Eric Mangini likely sends more pressure forcing the safeties up to prevent catches around the first-down marker. Plus Bethea and Dontae Johnson do more to get Shorts on the ground.
--McCray was outstanding on special teams coverage, including the 49ers' first punt, when he tackled Alan Bonner for no gain after being held by Eddie Pleasant.
--Skov's best skill to this point? Shooting gaps on designed run blitzes. He has work to do in coverage and struggled when linemen beat him to the spot for their run blocks.
--The highlight for the "first-team" defense was the goal line stand at the end of the first quarter. Bethea stufed fullback Jay Prosch on first down before he was stood up by Lemonier. Mike Purcell made a strong tackle for a three-yard loss on Blue, and then stuffed Kenny Hilliard at the goal line two plays later. Eric Reid made a nice play on Hilliard stopping him on a run to his right, before Skov came over and finished him off. Then, Bethea and Nick Moody teamed up prevent Jonathan Grimes from scoring.
On fourth down, Blue met Reid, Moody and Skov at the goal line and was unable to get in forcing the turnover. It was an impressive sequence for the defense, that practiced goal line situations in practice six days earlier. Overall, the defensive line held its ground at the point of attack, allowing the linebackers and safeties to shoot their gaps and find the ball carriers.
--After struggling to get production out of tight ends last year, it's clear their inclusion in the intermeddiate passing game is an emphasis this offseason. Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert's first five throws were to Garrett Celek, McDonald and Blake Bell, including his touchdown throw to Celek. He beat Mississippi State rookie linebacker Benardrick McKinney easily over the middle, and then broke his tackle on the way to the end zone.
--Now, we have lift off from the Hayne Plane.
The 49ers had this play pretty well blocked. And while Bruce Miller got the credit for his block from Gabbert afterwards, it was Quinton Patton's block on the creeping safety (from the left) that made the play. Hayne would have scored a touchdown if not for getting tripped up by Rahim Moore. While Hayne deserves credit for the play, the play design and execution from the left side of the offense should not get overlooked.
--Watch the right guard, when Gabbert finds Jerome Simpson for the big gain, setting up the go-ahead field goal in the second quarter.
Brandon Thomas picked up McKinney on the blitz and drove him out of the play, creating an easy throwing lane for Gabbert to find Simpson on the crossing route. Thomas had a very solid debut and is entrenched in the battle to start at right guard.
--Back to the Hayne Plane:
And to start the second half, Hayne returned the kick off 33 yards by showing patience up the sidelines while his blocks developed before cutting back to the inside. Overall, a very impressive game for the former Australian Rugby League star.
--The biggest breakdown of the night from the offensive line came in the third quarter, when rookie right tackle Trenton Brown allowed Texans pass rusher Jason Ankrah to get to reserve quarterback Dylan Thompson for a safety. Brown's first move on the play was to chip the left defensive end, indicating there was either a mix-up in communication, or he thought Ankrah was going to drop in coverage.
How did the 49ers do Saturday? It was clear it was the first preseason game with a new coaching staff based purely on the focus of game operations. Saturday was a test as much for the staff as much as the players.
As Mangini noted in his presser Tuesday, getting the right personnel on the field, and working with the coaches up stairs on the booth, was one of the biggest challenges of the game.
Considering things went well on that end, and the offense was able to get in and out of the huddle, the sky hasn't fallen on the 49ers yet, despite losing 23-10.
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