After a devastating roster overhaul, and a plethora of key contributors sitting out with either an injury or veteran privileges, expectations were tempered for head coach Jim Tomsula’s preseason debut during Saturday night’s 23-10 loss to the Houston Texans.
Just about every unit of the San Francisco 49ers was without a player who factors to be a key contributor during the regular season, making Saturday night’s contest more of a display of depth than a true preview of things to come.
But it wouldn’t be preseason football without overreactions and critical analysis of small sample sizes. So in keeping with that spirit, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the San Francisco 49ers first preseason game.
- The Jarryd Hayne hype plane is at full-throttle following his impressive NFL debut on Saturday. The former rugby league star introduced himself to an American audience by ripping off a massive 53-yard run in the second quarter that would set up the 49ers first touchdown of the preseason two plays later.
Hayne’s next drive was more tempered, gaining eight yards on three carries, but newcomer never failed to pick up positive yardage during his time in the backfield. He finished the night as the game’s leading rusher, gaining 63 yards on five carries, while averaging 12.6 yards-per-carry.
Almost as impressive as his running skills was how he fared on return duties. Hayne showed his strength and athleticism that made him a terror in the National Rugby League by picking up 24 total-yards on two punt returns, as well as a 33-yard kickoff return.
Video: Hayne’s 53-yard run
Hayne may not have secured himself a spot on the 53-man roster as he faces tough competition in a crowded backfield, but he definitely asserted himself as someone who looks like they belong on an NFL field.
- While Hayne’s addition to the team had garnered some preseason press prior to his first snap, Saturday’s defensive star of the first half was the best player you’ve probably never heard of. NT Mike Purcell was the 49ers immovable object during an impressive goal line stand that stopped Houston’s rolling offense from scoring their second straight touchdown in a row on the first team defense.
Purcell, a third-year, undrafted free agent out of Wyoming, made a number of key stops while plugging up the middle of the field, disallowing Houston to score on a first and goal from the one yard line. Purcell’s biggest contribution came when the 303-pound lineman broke through the backfield to bring down Houston RB Alfred Blue for a three-yard loss.
Out of Purcell’s six first-half tackles, four of them were solo and three of them came in that aforementioned red zone stand. Purcell’s role will be interesting to monitor. It also doesn’t hurt that his new head coach was the former defensive line coach known for churning out All-Pro players.
- Blaine Gabbert was good in a preseason game. Blaine Gabbert was so good in a preseason game that he finished the night with a 125.6 passer rating after completing 8-of-11 attempts for 86 yards and a touchdown.
These results are much better than Gabbert’s numbers last year, where he posted a 1.7 rating during 2014’s preseason opener after completing just 3-of-11 passes, while throwing an interception, against the Baltimore Ravens.
Gabbert looked most comfortable throwing to his tight-ends, getting everyone from Vance McDonald, Blake Bell, and Derek Carrier involved in his passing attack to great results. On his first drive of the game, Gabbert marched steadily down the field, completing all three of his passes for 38 yards and a touchdown.
The former first-round pick’s performance made his new head coach look like a savant, after Tomsula stated matter-of-factly that his backup quarterback would not repeat last year’s dismal performance prior to Saturday’s game.
“I’m a believer in Blaine Gabbert. Again, we are building a team, so in terms of the on-the-field play and the team, Blaine Gabbert, that’s a beautiful piece. We talk about Blaine Gabbert’s performance in the preseason last year, when did he get in, who was blocking for him, what was the cast around him? This preseason…that cast will probably be different. Maybe not as much this weekend, but Blaine Gabbert is going to be in a position with a cast around him that’ll look different.”
- This is perhaps the pinnacle of preseason overreactions, but let’s scrutinize all we can out of the first-team offenses’ showing. Missing from action was the reinvented Vernon Davis, who has had perhaps the strongest camp out of any offensive player thus far for the 49ers.
Sans Davis, however, all the apparent starters were on the field for the 49ers offense to start the game. The unit made their appearance as brief as possible, running just five plays for 16 yards, and lasting just over two minutes on the field before disbanding.
The lone highlight of this group came from the reliable Anquan Boldin, who muscled his way free from coverage for a 14 yard pickup on Kaepernick’s first pass attempt of the game. Kaepernick would then go on to miss the following two attempts, including a deep pass to his new weapon, Torrey Smith.
The attempt was encouraging however, as it shows the capabilities that the 49ers have on offense with the addition of Smith. After a medium pickup underneath with the bulky Boldin, it broke the field open deep for Smith, which is exactly what Tomsula and general manager Trent Baalke envisioned for this club.
However, after much to-do about Kaepernick’s revamped throwing motion, the quarterback still missed the wide-open Smith by a fair margin. Kaepernick’s two miscues dropped his passer rating to a bleak 49.3, but it appears that the pieces to move the ball are all there. It’s now just up to Kaepernick to fine-tune his new approach.
No area of the 49ers roster was sparred from the wrath of this past offseason. But perhaps no group was hit harder than the inside linebackers core following the departures of trusted All-Pro, Patrick Willis, and the bright young talent Chris Borland. Throw in an injury to LB Michael Wilhoite, who has been hampered all offseason, and a still recuperating NaVorro Bowman, and the 49ers were without a single projected starter at ILB on Saturday.
Getting the nod to start in place of the veteran duo were linebackers Nick Moody and Shane Skov, who were immediately picked on by the Houston offense.
Moody was particularly exposed in coverage, surrendering a third-down conversion to TE Garrett Graham, and losing WR Cecil Shorts III on a deep ball for a 58-yard touchdown. Houston continued to attack the middle of the field on the next sequence too, before the aforementioned goal line stand saved the effort.
Moody has been laying heavy hits in practice, but Saturday’s contest exposed a deep flaw in his game, and a huge concern for the 49ers if Bowman or Wilhoite have health concerns over the season. However, Tomsula stuck with his men, giving the pair perhaps the most snaps of any players on the 49ers, and exposing them to the much needed school of hard knocks.
- Rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson has had some impressive throws during training camp. However, he was unable to showcase any sort of skill set on Saturday due to the third-string offensive line being able to muster up any sort of protection.
On his first drive alone, Thompson was sacked twice after linemen Trent Brown and Patrick Miller missed assignments, leading to a safety. Thompson was then sacked again on the following attempt, rattling off just six plays for -13 yards over his first two trips on the field.
If all goes according to plan, the likes of rookies Trent Brown and Patrick Miller will never be called on to make contributions to the 49ers this season, and they can continue to develop into serviceable players on the practice squad. But if there’s anything this offseason has taught us, it’s that there is no such thing as enough depth. And if the 49ers have to reach deep into their offensive line arsenal for any reason, it could be very ugly.