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Five 49ers that need to step up in Week 2 vs. Texans

Which 49ers need to improve their performance when they head to Houston?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Although the 49ers are officially in the win column, it was a result of solid play from a third-string quarterback, Nick Mullens, playing against defenders who won’t even make the Cowboys’ 53-man roster. On both sides of the ball, the 49ers’ starters had poor execution and certainly will need to step up their level of play before the second preseason game. Which players should fans expect an improvement from heading into Houston?

QB Jimmy Garoppolo

No, it’s not time to hit the panic button. The newly-signed $137M quarterback only played one series in Thursday’s opening act, but it sure didn’t look pretty. Garoppolo attempted six passes, but only completed half of them for a measly 34 yards. The 49ers’ starting signal caller looked uncomfortable in the pocket and airmailed a few passes above open receivers.

Garoppolo has had an efficient training camp thus far, but only what happens on the big stage under the lights matter. The reason to not get too worried is that it was only one series. Typically, preseason offenses don’t open up the playbook and run plays that don’t expose much to opposing defenses.

Heading to Houston, Garoppolo will likely get to play two to three series, so hopefully the 49ers’ offense can create some cohesion and march the ball down the field.

RB Joe Williams

Kyle Shanahan has likely decided on his first two running backs — Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida. The former was signed to a $30M deal, while the latter was an un-drafted free agent who showed potential in his rookie season.

The battle for the last spot is going to come down to Raheem Mostert and Joe Williams. In Thursday’s game against the Cowboys, Mostert took Round One in a four-week competition for a roster spot.

In the opener, Williams ran for 27 yards on 11 carries — which includes a 15-yard run. While he scored a touchdown, Williams couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm. On the flip side, Mostert earned third-string snaps, gaining 57 yards on eight carries, although he did fumble once.

After a red-shirt season in 2017, Williams is going to have to regain Shanahan’s trust this season on — and off — the field.

DB Jimmie Ward

On the play that Dallas scored a touchdown, QB Dak Prescott eyed an open WR Michael Gallup, who fooled the 49ers’ defender. Gallup kept going on the go route, but Ward stopped midway and by that time, the Cowboys’ WR was already in the end zone celebrating.

While Ward was guaranteed to make $8.5M this season, the 49ers’ coaching staff has been harping that the best players would play, regardless of their salary. The 5-foot-11 outside corner is transitioning to a new role in Robert Saleh’s defense, while returning from an injury.

Ward will need to step up his play in the second preseason game, otherwise he could lose his spot in a crowded defensive backs’ room. On the depth chart, he’s likely behind FS Adrian Colbert and DBs Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman. If his performance continues to slide, he could fall further behind the younger corners.

RB Jerick McKinnon

While his starting job isn’t in threat, 49ers’ fans are going to want to see more from their grand free-agent signing. Carrying the ball for three times, McKinnon finished with minus-four yards, including a drive-killing first-down run that lost six yards, leading to a 49ers’ punt.

When RB Carlos Hyde walked in free agency and McKinnon was brought in on a lucrative deal, the excitement over an explosive runner grew. After watching his play on Thursday, there was certainly a lot left to be desired. McKinnon will be one name to pay attention to in next week’s matchup against Houston.

49ers’ starting offensive line

The offensive line combination of Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Weston Richburg, Laken Tomlinson and Mike Person played the first series together, but definitely didn’t turn any heads.

In that first series, the running game with McKinnon certainly did not get going and Garoppolo didn’t seem comfortable in the pocket. He was flushed out a few times and had to avoid quick pressure. While four of the five will be starters, Person is the only one in a roster battle with G Josh Garnett.

The key to offensive line success is repetition and chemistry, so it’s not too concerning that they struggled in their first real test as a group. While fans may be focusing on Garoppolo and McKinnon’s struggles, if the offensive line picks up their protection, it could end up benefitting both of those players.