San Francisco 49ers football is officially back, and the 2022 campaign kicked off with a 28-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the preseason opener. Here are five takeaways I had from the game.
1. This offense finally has the vertical spacing it has sorely been lacking
It’s no secret that Trey Lance has tremendous physical traits, including an arm that allows him to make throws only a handful of quarterbacks in the league can even think about attempting. The ability to threaten defenses vertically with Lance under center will only create more spacing underneath and clear things up in the box to open up the run game.
Lance was 4-5 for 92 yards in this game, but 76 of those came on a slot fade thrown deep down the left sideline to speedster Danny Gray. As important as Lance’s arm talent is in the equation, it cannot be complete without skill-possession players who possess the requisite speed to stress defenses on the back end.
Gray proved that he has the ability to contribute right away in that role, utilizing his 4.3 speed to win outside on a spartan route and create enough separation to not only make a big play downfield but also have the room to take off without being run down.
Speaking of the slot fade, it’s clearly a route they feel comfortable going back to the well with as long as Lance is under center. They ran a ton of them during training camp, and it was something Lance has had success with going back to last season.
This play was from the 49ers' preseason matchup with the Chargers last season, and it is the same route combination that Lance and Gray connected on against the Packers. It pairs a smash route with the slot fade and designates the slot fade as the primary read.
Now here’s Gray’s touchdown from the Packers game. (excuse the broadcast angle, I don’t have the All-22 yet). Watch how the smash route sits underneath to open up a one-on-one for the slot fade to the boundary.
This is just one example of a concept Kyle Shanahan can now comfortably implement to open up the field for his offense. Now that Shanahan has the pieces to execute these looks expect a lot more shots downfield this year and a much more aggressive attack on the back end of opposing defenses through the air.
2. Spencer Burford looks like a polished veteran
Burford landing the starting right guard job to start camp was certainly a surprise, but the more I got to watch Burford, the more I understood why that move was made. The physical traits are there, long arms, firm base, and able to pull and move well in space.
But the thing that impressed me the most about Burford was the poise and calmness he played with in his first game action at the NFL level. Even when Burford was beat initially, he displayed a tremendous ability to recover and find a way to win the rep.
The resiliency Burford displayed on some of these reps was that of a longtime NFL starter, not a rookie playing in his first NFL game. The physical traits Burford possesses are phenomenal (more on that in a second), but the resiliency he displayed was more impressive than anything else.
Back to the physical traits, which was also on full display in this game. Ignore the result of this play and instead focus on the individual rep by Burford from the right guard spot. Watch what he does to the 2 technique on this play.
Ignore the result of the play and focus on what Spencer Burford (#74) does to the 2T on this play— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 13, 2022
Burford is the kind of player who can maul in a phonebooth while also having the agility to get to the second level in an aggressive outside zone scheme. I was beyond impressed with the poise he showed against the Packers, and I look forward to see how he follows that up next week in Minnesota.
3. Kemoko Turay is going to be the steal of the offseason
When the 49ers signed Turay to a 1-year deal worth 1.7 million, it was evident that it was going to be a prove-it deal of sorts. The former second-round pick has exceptional athletic traits and a consistent motor that never stops.
Turay had five sacks in 11 on 11’s during Wednesday’s practice, and his ability to terrorize opposing offenses as a pass rusher should never have been in question. What really stood out to me in the preseason opener was the way Turay disrupted the Packers' ground game.
I counted four separate reps in this game where a rushing attempt by the Packers offense was stopped within one yard of the line of scrimmage, with Turay being the primary reason why.
Watch the way Turay explodes through the C gap to take down Packers running back Tyler Goodson for a loss of one on 3rd & 2.
Kemoko Turay blowing up this carry in the backfield for a loss of one pic.twitter.com/qgAnUxm9km— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 13, 2022
Here’s a closer view which provides another angle of the play.
Turay is next up in the long line of defensive linemen who have a career resurgence under Kris Kocurek, and the fact Turay is the third or fourth option at the edge position speaks volumes to how deep the group is as a whole.
4. Samuel Womack is the nickel corner of the future, but also the present
Rookie cornerback Samuel Womack had about as impressive of a debut as you could draw up. Womack recorded two interceptions and was a stalwart in coverage all throughout the night. Womack had 15 pass breakups during his final season at Toledo, so it’s no surprise he looked comfortable making a difference against the Packers' air attack.
The thing that was most impressive to me about Womack was his ability to fill his run fits effectively and handle his responsibilities in the run game. Womack not being be an outright liability in the run game was probably the one thing we needed to see to verify that he is ready to make a contribution right away and potentially be the starter in the slot when week one rolls around.
Womack has the physical tools, including a much longer wingspan than his listed height of 5’10 would lead you to believe. More importantly, however, Womack looks to have the intangibles required to be a starter at the position from day one, which sets him up for a role in the present and the long term.
5. This roster is as deep as projected it to be
The most impressive thing about the 49ers' win over Green Bay was how strong they looked, even while a large portion of their starters watched from the sidelines in street clothes. It was very telling the way they came out and played early with a unit comprised of some starters but with a majority of the players coming from the second unit.
Whether it was Drake Jackson pressuring the quarterback, Ray-Ray McCloud dropping a defender to the ground with a double move, or Marcelino McCrary-Ball recording an interception and craft fully navigating a 56-yard return, the players beyond the projected starters made their presence felt in a major way.
Colton McKivitz had a strong day, Tyrion Davis-Price ran with conviction, and Oren Burks was a tackling machine. In a game where Robbie Gould was the only one of the 49ers All-Pro players to suit up, the 49ers still looked like a well-composed unit capable of playing at a relatively high level.
This is a really good football team, top to bottom. One of the only downsides to that is there are a lot of talented players who will flash during the preseason but who have little to no chance of making the final 53 due to a logjam at their position.