I just finished up rewatching the 49ers vs. Texans game from Saturday, heavily using the rewind/forward buttons on my DVR. The game feed I recorded was the NFL Network rebroadcast, so I was watching the Texans' local broadcasters & camera angles/feeds. Because of that, my views of plays and the comments I heard were likely different than folks that watched the local 49ers' broadcast crew. Here are my main takeaways from the game.
1. Thankfully, no key, or major, injuries in this game!!! That's going to be a big thing to watch this season, because the 49ers have yet to develop the roster depth to allow them to possibly overcome major injuries to key players.
2. Jimmy G, The Glinch, and Marquise Goodwin were easily the standout top performers for the 49ers, with Trent Taylor, Rueben Foster, and D.J Jones all performing just slightly below the top level. I'll have more specifics on all 6 of these guys further down in this post.
3. The 49ers, as a team, played a below average game. However, the 1st team offense was dominant during the only 2 drives they were on the field, able to move the ball at will through the air. I also believe that if McKinnon &/or Brieda had been the RBs during those 2 first team drives, the 49ers would have shown much better results in their running game. I saw holes & lanes created by the 1st-team OL on several running plays that were not exploited by McNichols (mainly) and Williams. The sloppy play and spotty performances from the backups on defense were prety much inevitable, due to the fact that Shanahan & Saleh decided to play quite a few players out of their normal (comfortable) positions and played quite a few number of 3rd-string defenders for long stretches of the 2nd & 3rd quarters. Clearly, the coaches were trying to see how flexible some of their 1st- & 2nd-stringers could do when played somewhat out of position and how some 3rd-stringers would perform with better teammates vs. tougher competition. However, the first-team pass defense was alarmingly below average in every aspect of their games - almost to a man. On a positive note, the backups on both offense and defense showed consistently high effort throughout the game. But their level of play (from a technical, mental, & results POV) was often spotty & sloppy. They also committed way too many dumb penalties.
4. No "WINNERS" or "LOSERS" list from me this week. Instead, I'll list my notable GREAT/GOOD, AVERAGE, and BELOW-AVERAGE/POOR performers...
5. NOTABLE GREAT/GOOD PERFORMERS (In no partcular order):
He shredded the Texans pass defense (running a mostly limited version of the playbook), only hand 2 incompletions, and only made 1 poor read/decision & throw. I'm know some folks will claim that the pass to Pettis that ended in an interception was thrown too high, but they're wrong. Go back and watch that play again, and you'll see that a Texans LB was standing between Jimmy & Pettis (~12 yards off the line of scrimmage) when Jimmy initiated his throwing motion - so Jimmy had to throw the ball high enough to get it over the LB's reach. While Jimmy was in his throwing motion, that LB slipped to the turf, so it appeared that Jimmy had a wide-open throwing lane to reach Pettis, but it was too late for Jimmy to change his throw by then. That pass hit Pettis in the hands, and should have been caught for a first down. For some reason, Pettis wasn't even looking at the ball or at his hands when the pass reached him. Instead, he was looking down at the ground, almost as if he was thinking he had to do a sideline toe-tap to complete the catch. Most likely, Pettis was looking to see if a defender was getting ready to unload on him. The only bad decision/throw I saw from Jimmy came on approx. 6th play of the 1st drive. It was on a 2nd & 9 pass to Garcon from Houston's 34 yard line. Not only did Jimmy throw the pass a bit off target, but he led Garcon into the defender who had him tightly covered. The decision was made even more questionable when you watch what Celek was doing on that play. As Jimmy was deciding to throw the ball to Garcon, Celek was breaking wide open ~10 yards further downfield - on the exact same sight-line as Garcon. Jimmy had no immediate pass rush pressure on that play, so he had more than enough time to wait another 1/2 second to hit Celek on an deep out route, or another 1 to 1.5 seconds on an out & up route, for a big gain. It appeared to me that Jimmy G had decided almost from the snap of the ball that he was going to throw the ball to Garcon on that play, so he wasn't ready to come off Garcon and hit Celek, even though he could clearly see Celek's route coming open when he was looking at Garcon.
Surprisingly, at least to me, The Glinch clearly out-performed Joe Staley during the brief 2 series that both OTs were in this game. The Glinch was perfect in pass protection - not allowing any rusher to even just pressure Jimmy G. The Glinch was also well above average in run blocking. He either neutralized or dominated his assigned defender(s) on every running play, except 1. The only block he missed came on the 2nd offensive series of the game. It was 2nd & 6 from Houston's 41 yard line. Jimmy G handed the ball off to McNichols on a running play that was designed to go wide around the right end of the line, or be cut-back inside the RT (depending on what McNichols thought was the best route). The Glinch got pushed back ~3 yards into the backfield by Houston's DE almost immediately as the play began, then was pushed down to the ground. That allowed the DE to cut off McNichols from running outside on the play. The play wasn't a complete disaster, though, because the DE wasn't able to fully disengage from The Glinch (even while he was on the ground) and make a tackle for a loss, and McNichols cut back inside for a short 2-yard gain.
Warner entered the game with approx. 2 minutes left in the 2nd quarter. He was paired with Foster at the 2 ILB positions for that final offensive series of the half by the Texans, and, wow, were they impressive together. It's easy for me to dream of the 49ers having another elite, long-term ILB pairing like we saw with Willis & Bowman. Despite this being Warner's 1st ever live NFL game, he performed and moved like a seasoned vet. Warner didn't look quite as quick & decisive as Foster, nor is he as much of an impactful tackler as Foster, but he wasn't far off. I was especially impressed by his consistent ability to avoid and shed opposing blockers. This is especially impressive when you remember that he barely played as a true inside LB, dealing with the reads & assignments that the 49ers have handed him, in college. We already projected it to be true, but Warner also showcased himself as at least a well above average pass defender in this game. Finally, Warner was consistently around the ball throughout his ~25 minutes of play. He recovered 1 fumble in the 4th quarter & almost had another fumble recovery in Houston's backfield (both fumbles were caused by D.J. Jones). Barring an injury or a big reqression, I have to believe that Warner is going to play his way into the starting lineup at ILB early in the 2018 season - possibly as early as Game 1. IMO, Warner is already at least as good a performer as the other 2 current top starting ILB options (Coyle & Malcolm Smith) projected to paly alongside of Foster - and Warner obviously has much more upside than Smith or Coyle.
Jones played a lot of snaps at NT & DT between the end of the 2nd quarter & the middle of the 4th quarter - and he was a consistent disuptive force. All this while occupying 2 O-Linemen on nearly every snap. As noted above, Jones also caused 2 fumbles by knocking the ball out of the hands of Houston RBs. Jones easily outplayed Earl Mitchell, the guy ahead of him on the depth chart, vs. both the run and the pass. Admittedly, Jones didn't play vs. Houston's 1st-team OL, as Mitchell did on most of his snaps. Still, Jones is clearly quicker, more athletic, and more disruptive than Mitchell at this stage of their respective careers. Shanahan and Saleh love Mitchell's work ethic, consistency, and unselfishness, but at some point they're going to have to admit that Jones is now the better peak performer. Most likely Jones will need to prove he can be as consistent as Mitchell vs. opposing teams' top OLs before a change to the depth chart will be made.
For the 2nd game in a row, Mullens entered the game and immediately provided a spark to an offense that was struggling. As with Game 1, his efforts came mostly vs. the opposing teams 3rd-string players, so it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, Mullens clearly gets set into a position to throw the ball, reads the defense, and releases the ball noticeably quicker than C.J. Beathard does. Mullens also has been more accurate than Beathard during the first 2 games (although CJ's accuracy was much-improved in Game 2) Mullens' quicker setups and reads allows him to hit receivers at more advantageous times in their routes, and his quickness & accuracy allows them to be more likely to add on more YACs after their receptions. I hope that Shanahan plays Mullens ahead of CJ in Game 3, so we can get a better handle of how he performs vs. better competition.
Garnett entered the game at RG to begin the 49ers 2nd offensive series of the game, and played the whole series with the 4 other projected regular season 1st team starters. Due to all the journalists & fans that have been predicting Garnett will be cut off the roster before the regular season starts, and from the looks I got of Garnett with the 49ers during the 2016 regular season, I wasn't expecting mcuh from Garnett in this game. Count me as being very pleasantly surprised after watching Garnett play from the middle of the 1st quarter through the middle of the 3rd quarter. Garnett wasn't especially good, but he was clearly above average - especially as a run blocker. As a whole, Garnett's performance was closely on par with what I've seen from Mike Person at RG during the first 2 preseason games, and Garnett was clearly superior to a rusty Jonathan Cooper in the Houston game. Garnett was clearly better than Person at run blocking, while Person was clearly better in pass protection - though neither were liabilities as run or pass blockers. Garnett is notably quicker, stronger, and more athletic than Person, while Person is more technically sound and more consistent. Garnett was especially impressive in his ability to burst off the line of scrimmage on running plays at the snap of the ball, consistently beating his assigned defender to the point of attack. With so much lack of practice and playing time, I do expect Garnett to be more likely than Person to improve his performances going forward, which is good news for us 49ers fans. It was interesting to me that the 49ers paired Person at Center with Garnett at RG for > 25 minutes of the game after the first-team offense went to the bench. I'll go on record now as predicting that Garnett will make the final 53-Man roster, if he remains healthy and able to play, and barring any new guy being acquired via trade or waiver claim. Even if Eric Magnuson hadn't been place on IR today, I think Garnett would have survived the final cut.
Quise caught every pass thrown to him, mostly for big gains, and seemed to be able to get open at will. In these first 2 preseason games, it's clear that Shanahan isn't showing his full hand when sending Quise out on pass routes. Shanahan has focused on mostly having Quise run short and intermediate routes and hasn't showcased his world-class speed on any type of deep Go/Seam/Post routes. Once real games begin, I'm sure we'll see much more of Quise breaking down defenses with frequent deep routes that will hit for big chunk gains or open up the intermediate- and short-area routes for other receivers.
Taylor continued to be the awesome 3rd-down conversion machine that we saw in the 2nd half of the 2017 season. On his TD catch from Jimmy G, Taylor got big separation from his defender within 3 yards of the LOS, and after only 1 second from the snap of the ball. Jimmy G could have hit Taylor for the TD as soon as 3 seconds before he actually ended up throwing the ball to him - that's how quickly TT got open. The only blemish on TT's performance came in the 4th quarter, when he dropped a 3rd down pass that would have given the 49ers a key 1st down. There's no doubt that TT was clearly the victim of an obvius pass interference on that play - with the CB hitting him and wrapping his arm around TT's waist before the pass reached him - but TT needs to come down with catches like that if he wants to be an All-Pro. That was one of several key penalties committed vs. the 49ers that the officials failed to call - while they were calling phantom penalties on the 49ers (in favor of the Texans) that they only imagined.
Another Taylor also had a very good game, this one on the defensive side of the ball. Jullian was rarely used, and only in the 1st quarter, but in this game he was playing only vs. the opposing team's #1 offensive line (unlike Game 1). My take on that was that the 49ers already know and love what they've seen from Jullian, and kept him on the bench in favor of seeing what some backup DEs on the roster could do with longer playing time & vs. a higher level of competition. Whatever their reasoning, Jullian provided consistent penetration & backfield disruption, vs. the run and pass, when he was in the game. It was also notable to me that Jullian rarely lined up at the "Big End" position (where Armstead is currently projected to be the starter) that he starred at during the 1st preseason game. The 49ers actually experimented with putting Jullian at LEO and at Buckner's 5-tech DE position on the right side of the DL during the majority of plays he was in the game. It appears clear to me that if either Armstead or Solly Thomas aren't healthy enough to play in Game 1 vs. the Vikings that Jullian will be the starter in their place.
Foster did nothing spectacular in this game, but he was consistently at least clearly above average on every snap he was in the game. He continues to make constently good-to-great reads on plays, and he's so quick & fast in his movements once he makes his reads. He still needs to be a bit more consistent on his tackling techniques, but he's gotten better at that since 2017. Somewhat surprisingly, Foster played the entire 1st half of this game. So, he had to cover up for quite a number of missed assignments & tackles by other 49ers D-Linemen, LBs & safeties (mostly 2nd- & 3rd-string guys getting extended early game exposure) Foster was uniformally able to make the saving tackles or defeat potential pass completions on those plays where he was cleaning up a fellow defenders miscues - often saving 1st downs & big plays.
Day played by far the most snaps of any defender I saw in this game - playing all over the 49ers defensive line throughout all 4 quarters. Just as he did in Game 1, Day was a consistent penetrating presence in the Texans' backfield on running and passing downs (more so vs. the run). Day also was able to pressure the QB during pass rushes at a relatively high rate - twice forcing Houston blockers to illegally hold him to keep him from getting a sack or flushing the QB out of the pocket (sadly, neither holding penalties were called by the refs). IMO, he performs his best, and does his most damage, when lining up at either of the 2 DE positions (3- & 5-tech) in the 49ers defense, because it allows him the option to work either the outside or inside shoulder of an OG or OT with his well above average combination of quickness, strength & leverage. Between Buckner, Solly Thomas, Jullian Taylor, and Day the 49ers have a very good group of defenders to rotate in at the 2 DE positions on running downs - they could be great by mid-season if all 4 continue to improve and they get Armstead back at any point. Additionally, all 4 (and Armstead) can move inside as DTs on obvious passing downs to provide a much-improved 4- & 5-man pass-rushing fronts.
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This post is getting too long, so I'm going to break it up into 2 fanposts. The 2nd fanpost will contain my notable AVERAGE and BELOW-AVERAGE/POOR players for the game.