A smashing first impression

It was a smashing 2006 debut for the 49ers on Saturday night in their exhibition season opener, and here are our usual preseason observations, impressions and speculations from San Francisco's 28-14 victory over the Chicago Bears at Monster Park.

--- A misdirection rollout strike to a closely-covered Antonio Bryant for a first down on the 49ers' first offensive play of 2006. And then another completion to Bryant for a first down on the next play. Yes, you could say that's a good start for Alex Smith and the San Francisco offense.

--- Two incompletions and then a forced fumble on third down. That's a pretty good way for San Francisco's beleaguered defense to begin 2006, too.

---- The Bears certainly are no offensive juggernaut, but they had more lost fumbles (2) than first downs (1) after one quarter against the Niners' front-line defense, which either forced a turnover or a three-and-out on four of Chicago's first five offensive possessions.

--- He moves better, he throws better, he leads better, he feels pressure better and he makes better decisions. For Alex Smith, that's called not only progress, but also presence.

--- Smith never consistently saw time in the pocket like that last year -ever.

--- Anybody doubt that Smith can throw on the run now?

--- Perhaps the biggest number from Smith on his fine 16-for-21, 137-yard evening: Zero interceptions, and not one pass that even came close. Last year, he threw at least one pick in six of his seven starts.

--- What we've been seeing all summer, and what we may be seeing all season: Smith to Bryant, again and again and again.

--- Moving the pile: Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings, pleased to meet you.

--- This will be Isaac Sopoaga's coming out season at nose tackle.

--- Jeff Ulbrich looked like a halfback turning the corner on his 32-yard touchdown return of Rex Grossman's fumble.

--- Yes, that was Ulbrich blowing up Chicago running plays, too.

--- Kevan Barlow breaking a tackle at the line of scrimmage the first time he was hit on his first carry. That's already a big improvement over 2005.

--- Barlow and Gore and then ask for more. Sure, it needs some work, but see if you can come up with a better slogan.

--- We're not drawing any early conclusions about the rotation at tailback this year, but Barlow started and finished with one carry, while Gore had 10 carries for a game-high 49 yards.

--- Of course, Barlow took a shot from Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher while attempting to catch a short dump-off pass on San Francisco's fourth offensive snap and suffered a thigh contusion, so the Niners decided to keep him out the remainder of the game. But we still see more 2006 carries going to Gore even when Barlow is healthy.

--- Maurice Hicks' work as a goal-line back this summer obviously paid off.

--- And Hicks remains a legitimate breakaway threat in the open field, as he displayed on his 24-yard cut-and-burst after taking a short screen pass from Jesse Palmer.

--- When you're "The Bachelor," you need to learn how to improvise, and it looks like Palmer can do a bit of that in and out of the pocket.

--- Special teams coordinator Larry Mac Duff has taught his units to sell out while also still holding true to their disciplined assignments.

--- Mike Adams has a much better grasp of the position at free safety, and that's why he'll be starting there again on opening day in September.

--- Manny Lawson is finding out fast that he's not going to be able to get it in the pass rush on speed alone.

--- It looks like Joe Nedney will be getting more opportunities to show off his pretty left-footed swing this season. We already know from last season that the team's 2005 offensive MVP knows what to do with them.

--- As he has displayed more than a few times this summer, Shawntae Spencer still has a tendency to let sure interceptions slip through his hands.

--- That's what Arnaz Battle is good for - going over the middle to make the tough third-down grab when he knows a big hit is coming.

--- It was nice to see Bryan Gilmore get open and make a tough catch between two defenders for a first down the first time the football came his way as a 49er.

--- Give Vernon Davis some time to pick up those blocking assignments.

--- A yellow flag falling to the ground after a holding penalty on Kwame Harris. Now there's an unpleasant reminder of last season.

--- Keith Lewis will block a punt this season, just as he did last year and just as he did as a rookie in 2004.

--- But Lewis' missed open-field tackle that resulted in Chicago's first touchdown shows you why the third-year veteran will never be anything more than a reserve safety with the Niners.

--- Based on one preseason performance, Justin Smiley won't be budging as the starting right guard.

--- Eric Johnson in the flat, when isolated on a linebacker, is going to be a tough short passing play for San Francisco opponents to stop.

--- If the 49ers are going to keep one fullback based simply on what he brings as a blocker, then it will be Moran Norris.

--- Mike Rumph misses tackle, opponent makes big gain on third down. Does this sound like news to anybody?

--- Rumph couldn't have looked much worse in his first preseason attempt to remain a 49er in 2006, missing four tackles and looking extremely shaky in coverage.

--- Sammy Davis: The candy man can on the corner.

--- Gotta catch the ball to make the team, son: Rasheed Marshall gave yet another vivid example of the brick hands that will keep him off the final roster this year.

--- Delanie Walker returning kicks? Well, why not? He certainly knows how to run over people.

--- And Walker looks more like a big receiver than a hybrid tight end when he's running smooth passing routes from both sides of the line.

--- And as a running back? Walker looked awfully robust turning the corner for a 16-yard gain after taking a handoff from Shaun Hill.

--- So here's what the 49ers got from Walker in his pro debut: A 38-yard kickoff return, one carry for 16 yards and five receptions for 54 yards. Yes, get used to seeing this kid's name. He has officially been discovered.

--- Hill showed everybody something with his mobility, not to mention his nice little touchdown jaunt on a bootleg.

--- The 49ers' secondary may indeed be better than last year, when it allowed a franchise-record 4,427 yards through the air, but there appears to be a considerable dropoff from the first unit to the second.

--- Marcus Hudson gave a few nice indications why the 49ers have decided to work him at cornerback instead of safety.

--- Tough between the tackles: Rookie running back Michael Robinson, who is earning some playing time in a loaded backfield.

--- "It's just a start, as we all know," said coach Mike Nolan after the 49ers' most lopsided victory - preseason or otherwise - since he took control of the team in 2005. "So we won't make any more of it than that. But it was a good start."

Make that, a smashing good start.


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