49ers vs. Broncos: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after Friday's exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos, including QB Alex Smith, TE Vernon Davis, the team's coverage of pooch kickoffs, a non-existent pass rush, three DBs making interceptions, Michael Crabtree's absence, RB Thomas Clayton's injury, RB Glen Coffee's debut, the first-unit offense cruising down the field and much more? Check inside.

Thumbs up: This was the true unveiling of the 49ers' new cherry red uniforms, and don't they look particularly sweet. The bright new look perfectly fits a rising team that appears to have a bright future resplendent in a classy, no-frills look.

Thumbs up: San Francisco's first-unit offense went right down the field against former coach Mike Nolan's defensive unit on the game's opening drive. The march ultimately stalled and the 49ers had to settle for a routine field goal that led them on their way to a 17-16 victory, but quarterback Shaun Hill looked extremely sharp and it was a crisp opening for a unit that was resting key starting weapons Frank Gore and Isaac Bruce. In his lone series of action, Hill completed both of his passes for 41 yards, scrambled for a nine-yard game and looked even better than the guy that led the 49ers to a 5-2 finish.

Thumbs down: The 49ers might want to work on those short pooch kickoff returns. Last year, if you remember, linebacker Takeo Spikes muffed a kickoff in the second half of the season opener that allowed Arizona to take control of the game and, ultimately, get ahead and keep ahead of the 49ers in the NFC West. On Friday's opening kickoff, on a play that was almost a replica of last year's gaffe by Spikes, rookie Bear Pascoe fielded a short kickoff and then fumbled before fortuitously falling on it just as a swarm of Broncos arrived to fall on him.

Thumbs up: So this is how Vernon Davis is going to be used in the offense this year. The 49ers went right to him on their second offensive play, and Vernon reeled in a short square-out and rumbled for 23 yards. Later in the series, he snagged another pass on a crossing pattern that gained 18 yards. If this a portent of things to come – and since it has been happening all spring and summer, it probably is – Davis is finally headed for that big season everybody has been expecting from him since he was the team's first-round draft pick in 2006.

Thumbs down: If Zak Keasey is going to stick around on the team this year at fullback, he has got to do much better blocking in pass protection. That is the weakness in his game, and it was exposed during San Francisco's first offensive series when he allowed Elvis Dumervil to run over him and sack quarterback Shaun Hill from the blind side. It was ugly, because both players rolled into a vulnerable Hill from behind, the kind of play that can cause serious injury. Keasey later fractured his forearm, another blow to his chances of securing a roster spot.

Thumbs up: This is what a big-time Nate Clements looks like. On Denver's first offensive drive, San Francisco's premier left cornerback recorded four solo tackles, then simply pulled away Kyle Orton's pass from tight end Daniel Graham in the end zone for an interception that kept the Broncos off the scoreboard. Like the wise pro he is, Clements held ground patiently in his zone, read Orton's eyes, then stepped in front of a bigger player to wrestle away the pass and make it his.

Thumbs up: Speaking of Clements … The guy who is likely to start opposite him doesn't look too bad either. Not to be outdone by Clements, veteran newcomer Dre Bly ended Denver's second drive by making a nice play on the ball and grabbing an interception of his own. Bly looks like he will be an excellent addition to an already solid defense and a quality replacement at right cornerback for Walt Harris, who's out for the season with a knee injury.

Thumbs up: And then there were three… Second-year player Reggie Smith got in the act, reaching in the air to make a nice interception of another Orton throw to end Denver's third possession, then returning it deep in Denver territory to set up a short 49ers touchdown on the next play. Smith, the team's third-round pick in 2008, hasn't been heard from much so far, but looks as though he's ready to contribute after a redshirt rookie season. Smith later saved a 49ers victory when he intercepted Chris Simms' pass in the end zone with 1:52 to play, thwarting Denver's two-point conversion attempt after the Broncos' second touchdown and preserving San Francisco's one-point margin of victory.

Thumbs down: Alex Smith's first passing attempt says it all about where he is as a quarterback. When his first read wasn't there, Smith pulled the ball down, then held it too long before the play broke down and he finally was pulled down for a sack and seven-yard loss. Despite a nice 14-yard throw to Josh Morgan on the next play, that sack ultimately doomed Smith's first series of the 2009 preseason and indicates things still aren't coming to him naturally in the pocket. Smith also missed Glen Coffee on a short screen pass that would have gone for big yardage and a first down. To be fair, Smith did finish 5 of 7 passing for 33 yards and finished with a passer rating of 120.8

Thumbs up: Speaking of passer ratings… This is the impressive game ratings for the three San Francisco quarterbacks who threw a pass: 118.8 for Hill, 120.8 for Smith and 149.1 for Damon Huard, who led the 49ers on a drive to the winning touchdown. That's phenomenal. The 49ers also got rookie Nate Davis in the game for their final two offensive series of the game, but he did not throw a pass.

Thumbs down: When coach Mike Singletary was asked after the game about his team's lagging pass rush, he responded, "Non-existent." Well, yeah, that about describes it. It's far too early to draw conclusions in the preseason, and the Niners obviously aren't going to share much of their pass-rushing plans with the NFL during August, but San Francisco finished with zero sacks on the night. And as you might know, getting to opposing quarterbacks is one of the 49ers' most crucial areas that needs big improvement in 2009. This was no way to start that improvement against statuesque Denver quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Chris Simms.

Thumbs up: Newcomer veteran Marques Harris looks like he'll be a nice addition on the edge of the team's 3-4 defense. Harris is known to bring some pass-rushing ability to the outside linebacker position, and he looks like he'll be able to make plays against the run too after he shed a block to drop Correll Buckhalter for a three-yard loss in the backfield.

Thumbs down: Fifth-round draft pick Scott McKillop is going to be a nice addition at inside linebacker and on special teams, but his weakness in pass coverage was exposed when he whiffed on receiver Eddie Royal after the receiver caught a short pass in his zone, allowing Royal to rumble for big yardage before others pulled him down. Opponents will come after McKillop with similar kinds of plays, so the rook needs to make improving in pass coverage a point of emphasis the remainder of this summer. McKillop was solid in other areas, however, making a game-high seven tackles.

Thumbs down: It sort of sucks that the 49ers opened the preseason without their ballyhooed first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree even having joined the team yet. Crabtree just falls farther behind with every day he remains unsigned, and preseason games would be his time to truly get acclimated to the NFL level if he expects to make any kind of impact this year. With No. 9 overall draft pick B.J. Raji signing his deal with Green Bay on Friday, No. 10 overall pick Crabtree should be ready to fall in place. But the two sides still appear far apart in negotiations as Crabtree seeks a slot-busting deal. Niners team president Jed York said before the game that discussions are ongoing and, "We'll get it done." York also said Friday was the last day the 49ers could have traded Crabtree's rights to another team. "We're all in," York said. And Crabtree should get his butt in camp so that he can play before time runs out on the exhibition season. The clock is now ticking on that…

Thumbs up: It was a solid debut for third-round draft pick Glen Coffee, who started at tailback in place of Frank Gore and produced 67 tough yards on 14 carries while getting extensive duty in the first half. Coffee runs with power and keeps his shoulders level to deliver the first blow, and looks like he'll be everything the 49ers hoped for when the brought him in to be Gore's top understudy. He also showed nice burst to the outside on a 15-yard run.

Thumbs down: The 49ers gave Alex Romero an opportunity to handle the kicking duties in place or regular Joe Nedney to give Romero – who basically is a camp leg this summer to keep Nedney fresh – a chance to get on film. Romero routinely drilled a 38-yard field goal, as NFL kickers should, but he shanked his first attempt at an extra-point after San Francisco's touchdown, which NFL kickers definitely can't do. When you're attempting to earn a job in the NFL as a kicker, those have to be automatic. And with the 49ers trailing 10-9 midway through the fourth quarter, it looked for a while like that shank might cost them a victory.

Thumbs down: J.J. Finley has shown some progress at tight end after spending his rookie season on San Francisco's practice squad last year, but he dropped a pass right in his hands on third-and-long that would have went for a first down and continued a drive into Denver territory. It was a perfect throw from quarterback Damon Huard, and Finley has to make every opportunity count if he's going to beat out sixth-round draft pick Bear Pascoe for the No. 3 role at tight end.

Thumbs up: Newcomer Michael Spurlock continues to look like a guy the 49ers need to keep around as a receiver and return specialist. Spurlock showed good hands and breakaway ability on both of his receptions, putting a move on Denver cornerback Jack Williams on a hitch pass that allowed him to pick up 10 extra yards and a first down.

Thumbs down: Roster long-shot Jahi Word-Daniels hurt his already slim chances to make the team with multiple gaffes in coverage. First he hit bumped receiver Nate Swift about 10 yards off the line for an illegal contact penalty, then later in the same drive gambled and whiffed on a third-and-long pass that was caught by former 49er Brandon Lloyd and went for a first down to keep a Denver drive alive. He later whiffed on a tackle attempt that allowed Denver receiver Kenny McKinley to break clear for big yardage and a first down, then allowed McKinley to get behind him for a 52-yard touchdown reception in the waning moments that could have given the Broncos a victory.

Thumbs up: You wouldn't have expected to hear the name Brit Miller scoring both of San Francisco's touchdowns, particularly in the manner that they came. But the unheralded Miller, a converted linebacker who was picked up the week before training camp, certainly showed everybody he can be a factor as a pass-catching fullback, getting open to catch two touchdown passes, one on which he took 40 yards down the right sideline. At the end of that score, he had a shifty, cutback inside move near the goal line that left Denver cornerback Jack Williams whiffing at air as Miller strutted into the end zoner.

Thumbs down: You hate to see a talented, hard-working kid such as Thomas Clayton go down with a knee injury. Clayton, the 2007 sixth-rounder who spent the past two years working his way up and developing on San Francisco's practice squad, came down awkwardly on his right knee when he was tripped up on a short run in the third quarter. He was on the ground several minutes before he eventually was wheeled off the field on a cart. The injury, initially diagnosed as a sprained knee, did not look good, and you have to hope the severity of the injury isn't any worse for Clayton, who had a legitimate chance to make the roster this year in a crowded backfield.

Thumbs up: Given an opportunity by Clayton's injury, rookie Kory Sheets showed late in the game he can indeed be a factor at running back, breaking loose for 51 yards on 10 carries, including a late 25-yard burst that forced Denver to burn its third and final timeout and effectively clinched the victory. Sheets ended the game with a 13-yard blast up the middle during which he was barely tripped up at the 5-yard line, preventing him from ending a San Francisco victory by scoring what would have been a rare walk-off touchdown.

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