SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The preseason often provides more questions than answers. And there are a number of things we won't know until the 49ers takes the field for its first regular season game Monday night against the Vikings.
Head coach Jim Tomsula was transparent with some of his thinking during the exhibition schedule, particularly when it came to playing time and tempering expectations for certain players (ahem, Jarryd Hayne). But now the cards are dealt, and Tomsula isn't going to show his hand with Mike Zimmer's purple-cladded crew coming to Levi's Stadium.
Let's take a look at some of the questions facing the 49ers heading into the opener:
What will the passing game look like?
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick completed 5 of 13 passes in the preseason, which is far from a telling sample of what to expect when the real bullets start flying. The offense was relatively straight forward, with Kaepernick dropping back and not being put into motion or rolling out to create throwing angles in space.
However, Blaine Gabbert was given those plays, consistently rolling out, hitting his check downs and operating the offense smoothly. Gabbert completed 82.1 percent (!) of his throws in three exhibition games. Not bad, considering how poorly he played in the 2014 preseason.
The two quarterback's ran completely different styles of offense, which could mean we're in store to see Kaepernick on the move, a lot, in the regular season. The best way to beat pressure is design plays that roll away from it, and the 49ers look like they will face plenty of pressure. Those plays simplify the quarterback's reads and should allow for Kaepernick to have the option to find someone deep down field, hit a check down, or try to make a play with his legs. Given his skill set, that might be where he's best suited.
Last year, he was asked far too frequently to drop back, read the field and make the right play. It led to 52 sacks, second most in the NFL. And behind this offensive line, featuring a brand new starting right guard in Jordan Devey and right tackle Erik Pears, the 49ers would be wise to deflect pressure by geting Kaepernick on the move instead of making him a stationary target.
How much will the last two first-round picks play?
Defensive back Jimmie Ward didn't get on to the practice field until late in training camp, where he worked primarily as a reserve safety. Last season, Ward won the nickel job from the jump and played there until sustaining Jones fracture number two in as many years. Ward is getting work at nickel of late, but it appears unlikely he would take that role from Tramaine Brock, the team's top corner, who worked in the slot with the first team since the start of training camp.
However, Brock is dealing with a hamstring injury. Tomsula indicated he doesn't believe it to be serious this week. But if Brock can't go, will could be Ward at nickel, or will it be someone like Dontae Johnson or Keith Reaser, who spent more time at the position in training camp.
If Ward isn't playing nickel, he will be limited to special teams. If that's the case, Tomsula will have to decide if it's worth having all five safeties on the active 46, because Jaquiski Tartt will likely be up, as will L.J. McCray, behind starters Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead, the 49ers' most recent first-round pick, spent the majority of camp working with reserves and getting most of his snaps in at left defensive end in nickel. The defensive line is deep, and there's little assurance Armstead will leap the more experienced combination of Tony Jerod-Eddie and Cornellius 'Tank' Carradine.
To be sure, the release of Darnell Dockett was a significant vote of confidence in Armstead, who showed his high ceiling at times during the preseason. But until kick off, we won't know how much he'll play.
Who will return kicks and punts?
Hayne earned a roster spot mostly because he averaged 18.1 yards on nine kick returns. He contributed in other areas as well, including running back and in special teams coverage. But the extent of his football career is four preseason games. Is that enough of a sample to make Hayne the top return man? Does Tomsula trust him that much after just a few months of playing a new sport?
That's the question with Hayne. Because as good as he was in the preseason, Tomsula can't know for sure if he wants Hayne catching punts with a game on the line. He's never done it. At any level.
Bruce Ellington and DeAndrew White have far more experience returning kicks, and they averaged 14.7 and 22.8 yards on punt returns, respectively. Those numbers aren't bad either, and could be point to the fact that San Francisco's entire return unit played well in the preseason, not just the return men. If that's what the film shows, will Tomsula hand the keys over to a player he can trust with more experience, or a potential game-breaker like Hayne?
How much will NaVorro Bowman play?
Bowman's play in the preseason was encouraging. But it remains to be seen how his surgically repaired left knee will hold up on a week-to-week basis.
Will the 49ers try to get ahead of any potential soreness and/or fatigue in the knee by playing him less? Is that why Tartt, a safety, has been seen playing linebacker in certain passing situations?
To be sure, Tomsula might have to pry Bowman off the field himself. His overall usage will be monitored very closely. And if Bowman really can complete this comeback and return to All-Pro form, they're going to do everything they can to keep that knee healthy for the long haul, which might mean fewer reps early in the season.
Is Eric Mangini's defense really going to blitz that much?
Mangini has been the antithesis to former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Of course, Mangini doesn't have the same personnel, which is a big reason why.
Fangio's defenses in San Francisco were so good because he was able to stop the run and get a consistent pass rush with just four players. There's no better luxury for a defense than to have than a strong pass rush with seven players staying in coverage. Just ask Aaron Rodgers, who never beat the 49ers with Fangio running the defense.
But it looks like that's going to change under Mangini, who has dialed up blitzes left and right, both in practice and preseason games. That proactive approach is designed to dictate where the offense goes in certain situations. But it's a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Running the right blitz against the right protection often results in a good play for the defense. The wrong blitz can lead to a big play for the offense.
With that approach, Mangini will have to be just about perfect when picking his spots to attack an offense. He doesn't have Patrick Willis, Justin Smith or Aldon Smith to dominate their one-on-one match ups like Fangio did. All the moving parts must synch perfectly.
<P><I>Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/ChrisBiderman">here.</a></i></p>
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