The San Francisco 49ers 23-10 loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday night was less of a preview of things to come, and more of a test of organizational depth.
With the likes of NaVorro Bowman, Vernon Davis, Reggie Bush, Darnell Dockett and many other key contributors sitting out the preseason opener, head coach Jim Tomsula used the contest as a means to gauge his influx of new and young talent.
The results were mixed, as an unlikely source of stars shined under the NRG Stadium lights, while some of the offseason concerns of the 49ers roster reared their ugly head.
It was beauty and the beast for the 49ers defense to open up Saturday night’s contest, as a dazzling defensive line was forced to bail out a spotty secondary.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer exploited the absence of both Michael Wilhoite and NaVorro Bowman, as the veteran pounded the 49ers secondary over the middle,exposing linebackers Nick Moody and Shane Skov’s coverage skills.
Moody was beat twice for big gains, including surrendering a third-down conversion and a blown assignment that lead to a 58-yard touchdown catch by Cecil Shorts III.
Things looked bleak again after QB Ryan Mallett continued to attack the coverage of the linebackers, aided by Alfred Blue‘s impressive 32 yard run that brought Houston to the 49ers goal line for the second straight trip.
But in an effort that would make their old defensive line coach proud, the 49ers were able to make a stand, repelling six of the Texans’ attempts to break the goal line on the ground. The 49ers pillar of strength during this stand was the unlikely hero NT Mike Purcell, who clogged the middle of the field while breaking through for a four-yard tackle for loss to back the Texans up.
It wasn’t all glory for the 49ers defensive line though, as they surrendered 59 yards on nine carries to running back Alfred Blue over two drives, as he often found wide gaps in the 49ers line to operate in.
Colin Kaepernick and the first team offense, sans TE Vernon Davis and RB Reggie Bush, had a short run together on Saturday night, tallying just five plays for 15 yards before being forced to punt.
Kaepernick finished his night with one-for-three passing for 14 yards, relying on his safety valve receiver, Anquan Boldin, to pick up any forward momentum through the air.
Kaepernick tried to get his new weapon, Torrey Smith, into the game, but overthrew him on a deep ball after the speedster had broken through the secondary.
The first-team offensive line looked stout, buying Kaepernick plenty of time and space to get off his deep pass to Smith and providing adequate run blocking for Carlos Hyde.
It was then time for backup Blaine Gabbert to reintroduce himself to the 49er faithful.
Gabbert looked far removed from his poor 2014 preseason play, going on to finish the half on seven-for-nine passing for 83 yards, while punching in the 49ers first points of the 2015 preseason.
Gabbert’s opening drive was aided by an impressive 53-yard run from newcomer to the NFL, Jarryd Hayne, whose athletic 53-yard run through traffic bought Gabbert solid field position.
Gabbert finished the drive off by finding TE Derek Carrier for a 10-yard touchdown after fighting his way into the end zone.
The combination of Hayne’s legs and his tight end’s muscle proved fortuitous for Gabbert, as he continued to feed the former Rugby League star to the tune of 63 first half yards while connecting with tight end’s Vance McDondald, Carrier and Blake Bell to the tune of 52 combined yards and a touchdown.
Hayne had a strong day as a return man as well. His athleticism and toughness as a Rugby League star were on full display as he averaged 12 yards on two punt-returns, while breaking off a 33-yard kickoff return as well.
Gabbert’s only blemishes came on his final drive of the second quarter, as he telegraphed a pass to Hayne in the backfield that got the new running back drilled for what was almost a fumble, while also showing signs of skittishness under pressure.
However, he ended the first half with an impressive seven of nine passing for 83 yards and touchdown, as well as a 10-8 lead.
The 49ers depth was tested immediately in the second half, to unfavorable results.
San Francisco promptly surrendered a touchdown to new quarterback Tom Savage, who connected with WR Jaelen Strong after he out-bodied CB Marcus Cromartie in the corner of the end zone to jump to a 15-10 lead.
The third-string offensive line would not make it easy for rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson to regain the lead, as linemen Patrick Miller and Trent Brown were beat on consecutive snaps for sacks, with Brown’s miscue leading to a safety.
Things would not improve for Thompson over his next three drives either, tallying just 10 plays for 32 yards over the span.
Thompson would finish his disappointing night with an interception across the middle of the field with 48 seconds left in the fourth.
While it wasn’t all pretty on offense in the fourth quarter, it did allow us to get a look at fourth-round running back Mike Davis.
Despite his line providing little coverage, Davis showed his ability to run with both power and craftiness, as he often weaved his way through a blown out line for positive yardage.
On defense, the fourth quarter gave us an extended look at first year player’s Kenneth Acker, Arik Armstead and and Jaquiski Tartt.
Acker shined in particular while covering WR Chandler Worthy, sticking to him on a go-route down the sideline to disallow a deep-pass from Savage.
Tartt showed off his knack for throwing his 6-foot-1, 221-pound frame around while making several hard hits including a nice read of a run play to break through the line for an impressive tackle-for-loss.
Armstead, the 49ers first-round pick, showed his strength while routinely putting pressure on Houston’s defensive linemen, and looks to add promising depth despite missing all of the early offseason and minicamp workouts.
Things would slow down for both teams in the latter half of the contest, with Houston adding a pair of field goals before time ran out, securing their 23-10 victory.