49ers vs. Broncos: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their 17-16 victory over the Denver Broncos on Friday night to begin the exhibition season:

That's something San Francisco has been looking for since trading away Kevan Barlow after Gore beat out Barlow for the starting job during 2006 training camp. Some questioned the team using a valuable third-round pick this spring on University of Alabama junior Glen Coffee, but Coffee displayed during his NFL debut why the pick is justified and how it's likely to pay off for the team this season. Coffee, starting in place of Gore on Friday, played like a starter against Denver's top defenders throughout the first half, gaining 67 yards on 14 carries and also showing confidence and effectiveness in his assignments in pass protection. But he was most effective where the 49ers really need him to be – and that's carrying the football. Coffee hit the hole hard and powered for extra yardage whenever possible. He made the most out of several of his runs and had only one carry that went for negative yardage. He also displayed slashing quickness in open space and an ability to turn the corner. Coffee, who has been running as the team's No. 2 tailback since the day he arrived in spring drills, seems to have already secured that role and displayed on Friday that he can be effective in his own right when Gore is not in the game.

It was a standout performance for Snyder, who really seems to be settling into the position now that he's not being shuffled around on the offensive line like earlier in his career. His game had improved in both pass protection and run blocking and he played very well Friday when the first unit was in the game. The 49ers brought in former Pro Bowler Marvel Smith during the offseason to ostensibly take over at right tackle, but Snyder isn't budging. Smith also played very well against second- and third-teamers Friday night, but he won't be moving ahead of Snyder anytime soon if Snyder continues to play like he did Friday night.

Producing turnovers – particularly key turnovers – has been a problem for the 49ers in recent seasons, but an influx of new players in the secondary could change all that this season. The 49ers got three interceptions from defensive backs Friday, and also got a fourth that was just as crucial when Reggie Smith intercepted a two-point conversion pass attempt in the end zone to preserve the one-point victory, though that doesn't count as an official play. Smith also showed good hands to make a leaping interception earlier in the game, and Nate Clements came up with a big interception in the end zone early in the game to keep Denver off the scoreboard and preserve San Francisco's 3-0 lead on a play that seemed to spark the entire team. Smith, who played hardly at all in his rookie season last year, showed that he is ready to make his impact on the secondary, and newcomer veteran Dre Bly already has. Bly, a two-time Pro Bowler, has practically cemented the starting role at right cornerback, and he had great coverage before making his interception Friday, a play that led to a San Francisco touchdown. With new starting free safety Dashon Goldson also a noted ballhawk, the 49ers should be greatly improved in getting to the football on defense when it is in the air this season.

It has seemed like that would be the case each of the past two summers after the he-man tight end followed a standout spring with a strong training camp, but each year he got lost in an offense that was either ineffective or didn't use him properly. But Friday's exhibition opener indicates this indeed should be a breakout season for the talented veteran. Davis ran good routes and showed excellent hands to snare two passes for 41 yards on San Francisco's opening drive, showing his ability on both short and intermediate routes. Davis, of course, also has the ability to go long, and his blocking once again was excellent in his limited playing time Friday. He'll be a regular contributor to the offense in general and passing game in particular this year, and when the ball is in his hands – a place it should be regularly this year – he is one of the team's top playmakers.

It was a game of several positives for the 49ers, but also one glaring negative in their complete lack of pressure on Denver quarterbacks, which allowed an otherwise methodical Broncos offense to make plays down the field and stay in the game. As has been pointed out many times, this is one of the key areas the 49ers need to improve this year to take the next step on defense, and the pass rush certainly wasn't taking any steps forward Friday. The 49ers recorded no sacks as Denver quarterbacks went back to pass 33 times and also failed to record even one hit on the quarterback. That means the Broncos had all the time they needed to make plays in the passing game. The secondary came through this time around, but that unit will need a lot more help from the guys up front when the real games begin for the 49ers to truly climb among the league's elite defenses. The Niners didn't spend much time with extra pressure schemes Friday and surely have more that they're not showing in the pass-rushing bag of tricks. But not one defender displayed what could be termed as an effective – or even acceptable – performance in pressuring on passing downs Friday, and that's something that needs to change immediately.

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