49ers sputter through up-and-down preseason debut

Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense struggled to find its footing under QB Blaine Gabbert Sunday as the Houston Texans downed the 49ers 24-13 in their first preseason showing.

Putting aside a 43-yard first-quarter touchdown reception from Vance McDonald, Gabbert and the first-team offense stumbled, mustering just 65 all-purpose yards during three possession — including a quick three-and-out and a costly fumble.

Gabbert would finish the evening by completing 4-of-10 passes for 63 yards, while missing makable throws to receiver Quinton Patton and RB Carlos Hyde.

As was the case in Friday’s joint practice with Houston, QB Colin Kaepernick‘s ailing throwing shoulder gave Gabbert sole possession of the first-team offense.

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

But the unit struggled to get moving during their first two drives of the preseason, as the incumbent starter connected on just one pass to TE Vance McDonald for 11 yards.

Returning to action for the first time since October, Hyde looked spry breaking free for a 22-yard rush, but would soon after deliver a costly fumble into the hands of Texans linebacker John Simon for a 41-yard touchdown return.

The starting unit would finally find cohesion during their third and final trip onto the Levi’s Stadium turf, with all members contributing to the first scoring drive of the preseason.

After pounding the ball early on, Gabbert dug into the 49ers aerial playbook, completing passes to RB Shaun Draughn, WR Bruce Ellington and TE McDonald, who would take his second reception of the game down the sideline for 43 yards before trotting into the end zone.

Speaking after the game, the offensive-minded Kelly wasn’t enthused over his team’s overall play:

“It was up and down, both Blaine and our first-team offense. I think, that first drive, there’s a couple balls that he probably wants back to kind of get us on track. But I mean, once they settled down and got on rhythm they did a really nice job of executing. But I think really the concern for us, and the in this league, is you can’t turn the ball over. We turned the ball over twice in the first half … that’s a 14-point swing that we need to win those if we’re going to win games this season… Overall, there are things you can be excited about, but there are certain things we need to clean up.”

Although the outing may not have helped to solidify his bid for a starting role, Gabbert looked to draw positives from Sunday’s outcome:

“There were ups and downs, but we saw when we kind of got into the grove what we can do as a unit. Vance made a tremendous play there after the catch, and it was good to get a touchdown on the board on our last drive.”

It took a while for the 49ers to find their rhythm on offense, though San Francisco’s defense opened the game with the same aggressive nature they’ve been showcasing all camp, stymying Houston’s attack.

San Francisco allowed Houston’s first-team offense to gain just 60 yards on 14 plays, forcing two punts and a turnover on downs in what was a strong all-around effort without starters S Eric Reid and DL Arik Armstead.

The 49ers showcased first-round draft pick DE DeForest Buckner in place of Armstead, but the real star of Sunday’s game was CB Chris Davis, whose play at the nickel corner position included two stops on third down, and a turnover on downs following a deflection on a fourth-down attempt by Houston.

Contenders for the nickel corner job coming into camp included last year’s starter Kenneth Acker and draft picks Rashard Robinson and Will Redmond. Davis’ showing on Sunday may solidify him as the dark horse to win the job at the start of the season.

With a unique blend of size and speed, Kelly spoke highly of Davis’ ability to both cover and rush the passer from the nickel spot:

“He’s taken advantage of the opportunity he’s being given. I think he’s really sharp as a football player. He’s physical, he’s not the tallest corner we have but he’s thick and he’s strong and he’s physical. He matches up well in there…He’s done a nice job so far and we’ll continue to see if we can expand his role.”

CB’s Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward also had strong showings, holding dynamic receiver DeAndre Hopkins without a reception, while helping to hold QB Brock Osweiler to just 27 yards on four completions.

San Francisco’s first-quarter scoring drive salvaged an overall lackluster performance by Gabbert and the first-team offense. Despite finding the end zone, starting 49ers wide receivers would account for just one catch on the day for six total yards by Ellington.

Likewise, 22 of Hyde’s 27 total rushing yards came on one play. The third-year player would muster just five yards on four other carries — including a fumble — during the rest of his time on the field.

Hyde had limited success rushing, though the revamped offensive line showed promise in staving off an impressive front seven from Houston.

San Francisco’s ground game had more success with second-year player Mike Davis rushing behind QB Thad Lewis and an offensive line consisting of first-round draft pick Joshua Garnett and RT Anthony Davis.

Former fourth-round pick Davis showed athleticism and deception in the open field, leading all running backs on the day with 72 yards on five carries.

Although the majority of Davis’ yards would come on a 44-yard scamper, the second-year back would gain double-digit yards two more times en-route to his game-high performance. Davis also showed good hands out of the backfield while snagging two receptions for 17-yards.

With Ellington and Patton looking to have secured their starting roles in the passing game, QB Thad Lewis’ turn on the field provided a look at receivers fighting for a roster spot.

WR Jerome Simpson lead all receivers on the bubble, catching three passes for 29 yards, mostly against a third-string Houston defense. But the veteran receiver looked stout in his route running, working himself open into gaps in the opposing defense.

WR DeAndrew White followed Simpson with a two-catch, 23-yard showing of his own.

Preseason hype-man QB Jeff Driskel had a rough outing with the fourth-unit offense, looking unsteady with his passes and chemistry with his receivers, completing just 4-of-12 passes for 20 yards.

But the sixth-round draft pick was eager to prove he has a spot in some manner in Kelly’s offense, showing off his ability to scramble out of the pocket by chewing up 61 yards on five rushes.

It wasn’t a spotless showing by San Francisco by any means, but Sunday’s game showed a new-look 49ers squad with a promising defense and an offense capable of producing the big play that eluded the team last year.

Stat Pack

Quarterbacks:

  • Blaine Gabbert:  4-for-10, 63 yards, one touchdown.
  • Thad Lewis: 12-for-21, 97 yards

Receivers:

  • TE Vance McDonald: two receptions, 54 yards, one touchdown
  • WR Jerome Simpson: three receptions, 29 yards
  • WR Bruce Ellington: one reception, six yards
  • No catches: WR’s Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton

Running Backs:

  • Mike Davis: five carries, 72 yards
  • Carlos Hyde: five carries, 27 yards, one fumble
  • Shaun Draughn: two carries, 12 yards