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    Rookie Chris Borland started his second straight preseason game in place of Patrick Willis

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    Rookie receiver Cody Latimer catches a 33-yard touchdown pass in front of 49ers rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson.

49ers film festival: Strong game for rookies; Looney, Martin watch continues

Published: Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 - 2:29 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 - 3:13 pm

You have to dig long and hard to find the good news from Sunday’s game. But I think I discovered a gold nugget amid all the rubble from the 34-0 loss: The 49ers’ kick-return game is outstanding.

And I’m only being 72 percent facetious. After averaging 31.4 yards a return in Baltimore, the 49ers averaged 24.5 against the Broncos, a figure that was brought down by David Reed’s 11-yard return and fumble in the fourth quarter. Bruce Miller returned one 29 yards, Bruce Ellington had one go 32 yards and Quinton Patton had a 30 yarder.

The kick-return MVP may have been Miller. In addition to his return, the 49ers’ fullback served up two pancake blocks on returns by Ellington.

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Yes, Blaine Gabbert wins the “Bay Area’s Most Despised” award for the second straight week. But he wasn’t that bad. Jewel Hampton dropped one of his passes while Ellington failed to haul in another as he was being hit. If you buy Jim Harbaugh’s defense – and Harbaugh always will defend the quarterback – that Quinton Patton should have looked for the ball earlier on Gabbert’s interception, it was merely an “eh” outing by Gabbert, not an awful one.

The best backup for the 49ers may have been McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who at least got the sputtering offense into a rhythm in the fourth quarter. His interception was actually tipped into the air by tight end Asante Cleveland. It was a high pass but not an uncatchable one. McBLT, however, was helped out when an under-thrown ball to tight end Kevin Greene was tipped by Broncos safety John Boyett into Greene’s hands. The resulting 48-yard play was the 49ers’ longest of the day.

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A glass-is-half-full analysis of the defense: When Peyton Manning hit Julius Thomas for Denver’s first touchdown, there were exactly three would-be Week 1 starters on the field for the 49ers: Michael Wilhoite (or Chris Borland), Chris Culliver and Eric Reid. Thomas beat safety Craig Dahl, who seemed to think he was going to have help on the inside, perhaps from Borland.

The presumed starting defensive line has not played a snap this preseason. That has led to a huge number of snaps for Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial. Another take: The starters should be well-rested while Dial and Carradine, who had scant snaps last season, should have plenty of seasoning.

They’ve played the defensive-lineman equivalent of three games (Carradine has 117 snaps in the preseason) so far, and that’s not counting the three days of practices in Maryland where they took the bulk of the snaps. Still, it’s time for Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ian Williams to get some practice work. That likely will happen in Sunday’s preseason Game 3.

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The right side of the 49ers’ offensive line, guard Joe Looney and tackle Jonathan Martin, played well against Denver, especially Martin who went against DeMarcus Ware on a few snaps. The duo was particularly good in pass protection.

Looney didn’t always get a great push in the running game. He seems to have remedied the balance issue that hurt him against the Ravens. However, he is often the last lineman to fire out of his stance, and that gives the defender a jump on the play.

The 49ers should have been penalized for an illegal block when Martin went high on a Broncos defensive lineman and Looney went low on the same lineman. The 49ers didn’t make a big stink last year when Ian Williams was felled by a cut block in Seattle because the 49ers use it regularly too. Defensive players hate that type of block, and they have a point.

The second-team offensive line did not play as well as it did in Baltimore. But third-round pick Marcus Martin looked better, certainly more so than he did vs. the Ravens in the three days of scrimmages. He seems to be getting in better shape after dealing with an ankle injury. Carter Bykowski and Michael Phillip also stood out.

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Has Jimmie Ward won the ‘starting’ nickel spot? It’s hard to tell because his main competitor, Perrish Cox, has been starting at cornerback in place of Tramaine Brock, who figures to be back from an ankle injury on Sunday. Either way, Ward played a lot – 52 snaps – and gained valuable experience against the Broncos’ first-team offense.

Draft crush Cody Latimer not only caught a 33-yard touchdown on his only pass target Sunday, it was Latimer’s block that sent Antoine Bethea to the locker room with a concussion. There didn’t appear to be anything dirty on the play. Meanwhile, Broncos receiver Greg Wilson was targeted six times, which gave Darryl Morris plenty of work. Morris played well, but Kenneth Acker was the standout cornerback for the 49ers. He allowed just one completion.

It was not a strong game for backup safety C.J. Spillman, who whiffed on two tackles. Undrafted rookie James McCray continues be intriguing because of his combination of size and athleticism. The 49ers mostly have gone small at safety as per the league trend. McCray (210 pounds) is bigger and at the very least seems like someone who could excel on special teams.

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Speaking of special teams, Ellington and Cox were the only two players to return punts. Devon Wylie did not get an opportunity.

Speaking of special teams some more, here’s how the initial kick-return team was composed. That’s typically a good indication of who is earmarked for a roster spot: Spillman, Nick Moody, Ray Ventrone, Borland, Dahl, San Skuta, Vance McDonald, Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Miller and Ellington.


Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

Read more articles by Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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