Greetings, I'm so happy that football is finally back! I haven't posted anything here at NN over the 2.5 months, because there hasn't been anything even remotely substantial or interesting going on (other than the winding down of the Reuben Foster fiasco). Thankfully, we now have the first (of at least 21 consecutive weeks) concrete action to sink our teeth into and kick around. Without further ado...
I just finished up rewatching the 49ers vs. Cowboys game from last night, this time heavily using the rewind button on my DVR to find all the things I missed or got wrong when I watched it live. Here are my major, and some minor, takeaways from the game.
1. Don't overreact to the run game woes during the first half of the game. I, too, was initially disappointed by the lack of any running room for McKinnon and Breida during the first approximately 25 minutes of the game. Not only were there almost universally no holes created for the running backs during that time, but the Cowboys defenders were threatening the RBs in the 49ers' backfield almost every time they tried to run the ball. Not a good look - especially when the 1st team unit was playing with Jimmy G during the 1st drive of the game.
After my 2nd viewing, though, it was easy to see what the main problem was. It wasn't the OL, it was the play calling. During the first ~1.5 quarters of the game, the Cowboys lined up with 8 or 9 defenders within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage on every play that the 49ers had 10 or more yards to go for a first down, then they blitzed at least 1 linebacker (and often more than 1) on every running play. The 49ers' 5 man O-Line (with the added help of 1 fullback & often 1 or 2 TEs) was forced to block 7 or 8 defenders who were trying to penetrate across the line on every running play. Even the most elite OL can't be succesful in that situation unless the front 7 defenders they're facing are below aveage - and the Cowboys' front 7 are decidedly well above average. Additionally, the cornerbacks were playing press man coverage on almost every play during that time - allowing them to quickly come up and provide run support on the edges when they say the 49ers RB with the ball.
In a "real" game, Kyle Shanahan (and Jimmy G) would have seen this very quickly, and called (or audibled to) a lot of go routes & some screen passes to shred the Cowboys defense. But this was the first preseason game and it was clear that Shanahan had a list of plays he wanted to run and that Jimmy G & Beathard weren't going to audible out of those plays for the most part. In other words, as is usually the case, Shanahan was running an extremely vanilla version of his offense during the 1st preseason game. When the Cowboys reverted to a much more conservative and vanilla defense during the last ~5 minutes of the 1st half, and throughout the majority of the 2nd half, we saw that the 49ers OL was able to open up some holes for Joe Williams, Mostert & McNichols to run through.
2. W I N N E R S
The rookie RT played ~1.5 quarters of the 1st half and performed almost universally above average - especially in pass protection. Several folks have been moaning that The Glinch has looked underwhelming in training camp and was getting consistently beaten in pass protection. I didn't see any of that in this game. The Cowboys have 1 of the best and deepest pass rushing D-Lines, but Glinch didn't allow any pressures on his QBs during pass plays. The 1 time his "man" got near the QB wasn't his fault. It came on a inside-out stunt by the DE & DT where Mike Person (the 49ers RG) failed to pass his man (the DT) off to Glinch to slide over and pick up the stunting DE who was starting on a open run up the gut of the OL towards Beathard. Person had that play in front of him, he could clearly see what the DT & DE were attempting to do, and it was his responsibility to peal off to cover the stunting DE. The Glinch couldn't see what Person & the DT were doing behind him and he was physically obstructed by the DT & Person when he attempted to slide to his left to cover the DE's inside stunt move. The Glinch also looked fast & mobile with his run blocking. In stark contrast to what we saw from Trent Brown in 2017, Glinch was able to quickly fire off the line to quickly get to reach blocks 3-7 yards away from his starting position at the snap of the ball. This is the key thing Shanahan needs from his OTs in his run-blocking scheme. On 1 very encouraging running play near the end of the 1st quarter, immediately after the Cowboys used their 1st timeout, Glinch showcased his elite mobility (for an OT) by making his assigned initial chip block on the DE then peeled off, ran 5 yards downfield, and effectively screened out the Cowboys LB from the outside running lane. The actual play went nowhere, but Glinch showed he has the same ability as Joe Staley to make multiple blocks & get quickly to the 2nd level on running plays. That should pay off by springing RBs on long runs during the regular season.
He showcased his strength, explosiveness, elusiveness & stamina in this, his 1st ever pro game. There wasn't much more he could have done to prove he deserves to be at least a rotational centerpiece on this year's D-Line. Especially when you see how much better he looked than Ronald Blair, his main competition for a roster spot, versus better and similar competition in this game. Taylor penetrated into the Cowboys backfield on ~80% of the large number of snaps he took - on both running & passing plays - in the game. He was a true disruptive force and the Cowboys actually paid him the complement of double-teaming him during most of the 2nd half of the game after they realized he was killing them on plays where they only put 1 blocker on him. How good will this youngster be when he gains more experience and learns to employ better and more consistent technique!?
Day wasn't quite as explosive and disruptive as Jullian Taylor was, although he was pretty close to it. As with Taylor, Day played a relatively large number of snaps for what was the 1st preseason game of the season - making his effort and results even more impressive. I wonder if the 49ers will feel that they can safely cut the aging & average (at best) Earl Mitchell before the regular season starts if Day and D.J. Jones continue to perform at close to, or better than, the level we saw last night?
Reed looked & performed like a seasoned pro during the 2nd half of the game (when all of the other DBs were looking lost & getting burned). Reed was especially impressive in his effectiveness, and obvious enjoyment, on coming up to take on blockers and tackle ball carriers on running & passing plays near the line of scrimmage. I can see Reed developiong into an above average safety down the line, but he's already such an effective & consistent CB (both on the outside & in the slot) that it makes little sense to me for the 49ers not to keep him at CB. Reed already appears to be the 3rd best outside CB on this roster, and he'll very likely be a better slot CB than the current starter (K'Wuan Williams) at some point during the 2019 season. A good CB is much more valuable than a good safety in the NFL - and they're much more difficult to find and/or develop.
Mullens easily outplayed CJ Beathard in this game, even when you take into account that Beathard mostly played against a higher level of defensive competition. Mullens mainly made quick decisions and good reads, and showed above average accuracy as well as the ability to slide and move around in the pocket to extend plays while still keeping his eyes downfield.
James looked dynamic and elusive on offense and special teams - while displaying very good hands. He's facing an extremely uphill battle to make the final 53-Man roster, but this was a good first step.
Bolden was consistently able to get open on passing plays and he made several tough catches. He also showed advanced veteran smarts on several plays - despite being only a 2nd-year pro with very little playing time under his belt. And we've already seen how dangerous he can be as an open-field runner with the ball in his hands after receptions and on kickoffs. I'm not sure if Bolden's 5-game suspension to start off the regular season will hurt or help his ability to not get cut before the final 53-Man roster decisions. The 49ers will get a roster exemption for him if they do keep him on the roster to begin the season, so maybe that gives him a slight leg up.
McNichols looked like the quickest, most powerful, and most decisive RB of the 3 guys vying for the 3rd RB spot on the roster (McNichols, Mostert & Williams). Granted, he only got a very limited number of runs compared to Mostert and Williams; and he had 1 chance to (successfully) showcase his pass catching abilities. Of all the 5 RBs the 49ers played last night, McNichols was the only 1 that looked big and powerful enough to consistently run over defenders when he had to.
Dwelley surprisingly (to me) played a relatively large number of snaps. Most of them vs. the same defensive competitors as Cole Hikutini, Dwelley's main competition for a roster spot, faced. Dwelley showed a very good ability to get open, good hands, and that he's a very willing and fairly effective blocker (despite his skinny build). I thought the 1 holding call against Dwelley in the 1st half when he was kept in as an in-line blocker on a passing play was entirely bogus. His blocking on that play wasn't pretty, but it was effective and I watched it 5 times and saw no holding at all.
Pita T. looked bigger and stronger than what we saw from him in 2017 - and he performed markedly better when he was in the game. Granted, Pita didn't get in very many snaps and he played mostley vs. 2nd- & 3rd-string blockers. Still, his improvement was obvious and his main roster competitors (Jeremiah Attaochu and Eli Harold) both had decidedly sub-par games. Being young, cheap and controllable for 3 more seasons clearly gives Pita a leg up on both Jeremiah and Eli if the 49ers brain-trust are forced to make a close decision for the SAM & LEO positions during the final roster cut week.
3. L O S E R S
Beathard was mostly inaccurate and did mostly a poor job of negotiating an often congested pocket. Even worse, he consistently made late and poor decisions when passing the ball. These were all areas of his game that were understandably deficient during his trial-by-fire rookie season in 2017, so it was very disappointing to not see much, if any, improvement from him after getting a full offseason and partial preseason with Shanahan as the #2 QB. His deficiencies were especially glaring when viewed through the lens of how much better Nick Mullens performed in those areas during this game - and how much improvement Mullens showcased vs. the 2017 version we saw of him during the 2017 preseason. I'll give a good grade to Beathard for his willingness & ability to stand tall in the pocket to deliver passes when he knows a defender is bearing down on him to deliver a hit. But, that was already something we saw from him in 2017, so I can't count that as growth from him. It was especially frustrating to see receivers break open only to have CJ wait 0.5 to 1 second to throw the ball to them - or not see them at all. Even when he saw the open receiver and threw on time, he was often inaccurate with his throw (most noticeably on the long bomb to Pettis that went for a long gain, but should have been an easy TD).
He often played like a confused rookie at outside CB. The TD he gave up (granted it came on a snap where the Cowboys' Right Tackle obviously committed a false start penalty right in front of the side judge that was inexplicably not called) was a big rookie-type mistake. He had very good coverage on Gallup then just stopped running with him when he turned to find the ball. He also made a rookie mistake on a key 3rd-down conversion when he was playing tight man coverage on a WR that was split way out wide, but Ward allowed him to get an inside release to the wide-open middle of the field. Any vet CB knows you have to force the WR to the sideline in that situation and if the WR does get to the inside you must remain in trail position between the WR and the QB.
Blair didn't play poorly or look over-matched during this game. However, his main competitor for a roster spot (Jullian Taylor) clearly outplayed Blair in all facets of the game against better, or similar, defenders. Unless at least 1 of Buckner, Armstead or Taylor get injured or traded, the chances of Blair making the final roster cut now appear incredibly slim to me.
Toomer was supposed to be the seasoned, stable vet who is consistently above average vs. the run as an inside linebacker. Last night, he looked like a mostly poor tackler who looked consistently a step slow and confused. Even with Foster's 2-game suspension to start the season, it's hard for me to see the Korey Toomer we saw last night make the final roster cut unless at least 1 of Brock Coyle, Malcolm Smith, and Fred Warner are injured. Even then, the 49ers might want to keep Elijah Lee over Toomer due to his relative youth, higher upside, and Special Teams play.
Maybin had so many missed coverages and blown assignments where his guy was wide open. Maybin looked lost and/or was completely ineffective on the vast majority of the plays he was in for. By comparison, he made the 2017 version of Dontae Johnson look like a fringe Pro-Bowler.
I don't know if JA has a minor injury issue, but he rarely got in the game last night. When he did get in, his performance suffered in comparison to his main roster competitors (Cassius Marsh & Pita T.).