After 335 days, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers return to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. The last time that the 49ers’ franchise quarterback was on this field, he couldn’t finish the game, leaving with a torn ACL, followed by months of rehab.
As Garoppolo steps onto the turf on Saturday, he has got a lot of expectations on his shoulders, especially after a disappointing debut performance in Denver on Monday Night Football. The former Patriot should have thrown two interceptions and only accounted for one completion that went for no yards. But 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan indicated that Garoppolo would have played the entire half and all eyes in the Bay Area will be zeroed in on No. 10.
Outside of the 49ers’ quarterback issues, the coaching staff will have other facets of the team to pay attention to, from linebacker Kwon Alexander’s return to lineman DeForest Buckner’s debut to the offensive line injuries. The third preseason game is always the most important, as the starting offense and defense will get to play a half of football. While the record says the 49ers are 2-0, they have got a lot to show in the first half of Saturday’s showdown.
Here are four matchups that fans should be paying close attention to on Saturday.
1. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Rust
As I was putting this together, I thought to myself — “what is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo really battling?” It’s not the opposing defense, but it’s his internal demons after suffering a brutal injury that cost him the majority of the 2018 season.
Garoppolo returned to action against the Broncos last week, but looked shaky and nervous in the pocket and shied away from stepping up to make big throws. While Garoppolo only led the offense for a few drives this past Monday, he will get a significant amount of snaps on Saturday.
This is going to be No. 10’s premier chance to shake off all the cobwebs and start to get repetitions under his belt and begin to get in a rhythm for the regular season. The former second-rounder is unlikely to play Week 4 against the Chargers, so this could be his final dress rehearsal before Week 1 at Tampa Bay.
2. 49ers’ starting linebackers vs. Chiefs’ running backs
The 49ers will finally have linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander on the field for the first time this preseason. After the loss of Reuben Foster and a turnstile at the WILL linebacker position in 2018, the 49ers made a splashy free-agent signing with Alexander, who’s coming off a torn ACL injury as well.
Robert Saleh’s defense will employ youthful middle linebackers that have sideline-to-sideline capability against the run and solid coverage ability as well.
On the opposite sideline, head coach Andy Reid’s offense has a plethora of running backs at his dismissal, following the loss of running back Kareem Hunt. Reid has Damien Williams, ex-49er Carlos Hyde and sixth-round rookie Darwin Thompson. With Reid’s creative play-calling and the versatile threats in the backfield, it will be interesting to watch how the 49ers’ linebackers match up against the Chiefs’ run game.
3. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes vs. 49ers’ pass defense
314. That’s the number of yards that third-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for in Week 3 against the 49ers last year. It was an absolute clinic in the first half, as the former Red Raider lit up Saleh’s pass defense play after play.
While Reid may not be as exotic with his play-calling, all eyes will be on the 49ers’ defense to see how they match up with the array of weapons that Kansas City has at their disposal. Between tight end Travis Kelce, wideouts Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, the 49ers’ defensive backs will have their hands full.
With corner Richard Sherman completely healthy and corner Ahkello Witherspoon looking for a bounce-back season, can the duo slow down the Chiefs’ receivers? Free safety Tarvarius Moore will likely see lots of action in the center-field safety role as well, after impressing the coaches during the preseason.
But after last season’s beatdown, the 49ers’ pass defense is on high alert for Saturday against the NFL’s reigning MVP.
4. Chiefs’ defensive end Frank Clark vs. 49ers’ tackles
The Chiefs and 49ers made a trade in the offseason that sent linebacker Dee Ford from Kansas City to San Francisco, freeing up the Chiefs to make a splashy trade for ex-Seahawks’ pass rusher, Frank Clark.
Both teams felt like they made an upgrade at the position and are relying on these stars for sacking the opposing quarterback. Ford will not play in Saturday’s matchup, as he’s being handled with caution during the preseason. So all eyes will be on Clark, as he takes on the 49ers’ two best offensive lineman — tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey.
San Francisco’s offensive line did not do a good job of protecting Garoppolo on Monday, as Broncos’ pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Von Miller routinely beat the 49ers’ tackles. If Shanahan wants Garoppolo to get his swagger and rhythm back, he’s going to need McGlinchey and Staley to block Clark.