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49ers give us a hint at Week 1 starting lineup, but leave some questions

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The defense got healthy just in time for the preseason dress rehearsal.

The San Francisco 49ers effectively wrapped up their preseason on Saturday with a 23-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. They do have one more preseason game to play, but most of their starters will not be playing in that game. A handful will, but for the most part, Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers will feature a whole lot of second, third, and fourth string players.

With that in mind, there is plenty to take from the snap count for Saturday’s game. I’ve embedded a table below, and you can view the full gamebook PDF here.

The 49ers defense has dealt with numerous injuries in the preseason. They avoided season-ending injuries these first three weeks, but Saturday’s game was the first time we saw the entire defense healthy on the field. Arik Armstead, K’Waun Williams, and Richard Sherman all made their preseason debuts, while Solomon Thomas and Malcolm Smith made their first appearances since the opener against Dallas. The starting lineup looked as follows:

LDE Solomon Thomas
LDT Earl Mitchell
RDT DeForest Buckner
RDE Arik Armstead
LB Fred Warner
LB Malcolm Smith
CB K’Waun Williams
LCB Richard Sherman
RCB Ahkello Witherspoon
FS Adrian Colbert
SS Jaquiski Tartt

The 49ers play a 4-3 defense, but their primary looks is the nickel defense. We talked plenty about Mark Nzeocha getting first team reps as the SAM, but it took him a while to get on the field because we saw so little of the 4-3.

The first two preseason games saw Jullian Taylor playing the strong end role, and D.J. Reed playing the slot role in the nickel. The returns of Armstead and Williams made it clear what the pecking order will be heading into the season. Taylor and Reed both should make the 53-man roster, but they will be rotational defensive guys at best in their rookie seasons (barring injuries).

On offense, the right guard competition is not entirely clear. Mike Person got the start, but Joshua Garnett rotated in for a couple series with the 1s. Injuries slowed Garnett early in camp, but he seems to be building momentum for the starting job. Given the rest the starters are going to get this Thursday, it’s hard to guess where things stand between Garnett and Person.

Another interesting competition is for the third tight end role. Cole Wick was the first tight end off the bench behind Garrett Celek, but he and Cole Hikutini rotated extensively when the 49ers went with two tight end formations. Wick ended the game with 21 snaps to Hikutini’s 20 snaps. Both had drops, and I don’t know that either has firmly secured the spot at this point. I suspect we’ll see a whole lot of both of them in the preseason finale.

Richie James was a busy receiver coming off the bench. He had a punt return and a kick return, and led the team with 65 receiving yards on three receptions. He joined the team this year as a seventh round pick, and it’s growing harder and harder to keep him off the roster.

It’s always useful looking at offensive and defensive players who play strictly on special teams in a preseason game. This week, it was WR Aaron Burbridge, CB Emmanuel Moseley, S Chanceller James, WR Steven Dunbar, and DB Jimmie Ward. Ward got hurt, which is the reason he did not play on defense. But from the rest of that group, Burbridge and James seemed to be competing for a 53-man roster spot, while Moseley and Dunbar were on the wrong side of the bubble. Burbridge and James still might have a shot given that their most likely role Week 1 would be on special teams, but it is still surprising to see James in particular not get opportunities with the defense.

49ers snap count vs. Colts, Week 3 preseason

Player Offense Defense ST
Player Offense Defense ST
Joe Staley 45 2
Weston Richburg 45 2
Laken Tomlinson 45 2
Mike McGlinchey 45 2
Jimmy Garoppolo 45
Marquise Goodwin 44
Garrett Celek 37 3
Pierre Garçon 35
Kendrick Bourne 33 6
Alfred Morris 33
Joshua Garnett 27 3
Mike Person 27
Najee Toran 26 1
Coleman Shelton 25
Pace Murphy 22 1
Richie James 21 6
Cole Wick 21 4
Cole Hikutini 20 6
Kyle Juszczyk 20
Jeremy McNichols 19 2
Trent Taylor 19 1
Darrell Williams 17 2
Jonathan Cooper 17 1
Dante Pettis 15 1
Jeff Wilson 14 11
Andrew Lauderdale 13 1
Nick Mullens 13
C.J. Beathard 13
Aldrick Robinson 10 7
Raheem Mostert 5 8
Malcolm Johnson 5 5
Ross Dwelley 3 6
Victor Bolden 2 8
D.J. Reed 41 8
Tarvarius Moore 37 11
Ahkello Witherspoon 35 4
Jaquiski Tartt 34 3
Fred Warner 34 1
Richard Sherman 33 1
Elihah Lee 32 12
Adrian Colbert 32 4
Ronald Blair 30 3
Brock Coyle 29 10
Tyvis Powell 29 10
Greg Mabin 29 10
Jeremiah Attaochu 29 7
Reuben Foster 29 1
DeForest Buckner 27 3
Solomon Thomas 27 1
Antone Exum 24 7
K'Waun Williams 24
Arik Armstead 22 1
Niles Scott 21 4
Will Sutton 20 4
Sheldon Day 19 1
D.J. Jones 19
Cassius Marsh 17 2
Dekoda Watson 16 4
Pita Taumoepenu 13 15
Jullian Taylor 12 2
Mark Nzeocha 11 9
Earl Mitchell 11 1
Chris Jones 10 1
Malcolm Smith 10
Korey Toomer 8 13
Dexter McCoil 8 12
Tarvarus McFadden 7 2
Aaron Burbridge 8
Bradley Pinion 7
Kyle Nelson 7
Emmanuel Moseley 7
Chanceller James 7
Jeff Locke 5
Steven Dunbar 4
Robbie Gould 3
Jimmie Ward 2