49ers with Matt Barrows

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49ers film review: A conundrum at cornerback, youngsters McCray, Looney look good

08/29/2014 9:03 AM

08/29/2014 9:13 AM

If a general manager's goal is to make cut-down day difficult, Trent Baalke has succeeded. He will begin the process of trimming the 49ers’ roster to 53 players this afternoon, and he is bound to have trouble at a couple of spots, including cornerback.

Three cornerbacks began Thursday's game on the proverbial roster bubble – Kenneth Acker, Chris Cook and Darryl Morris – and all three played well. Cook had an interception, his second of the preseason, knocked away two passes and made two tackles in just 20 snaps.

Morris knocked away a pass and had two special teams tackles. Acker was solid for the third straight game and tied for third on the team with four tackles. It's certainly possible that all three make the squad. But if it came down to two, my argument would be: Keep Cook, who has done everything asked of him this offseason, and Morris, whose versatility as a corner, nickel corner and special teamer gives him real roster value, and cross your fingers that Acker lands on the practice squad.

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During the telecast, analyst Tim Ryan said he thought quarterback Blaine Gabbert was trying too hard and had too many things going through his head when under center. That was a critique used on Alex Smith early in his 49ers career, and there are similarities. Like a younger Smith, Gabbert takes a looooong time to warm up and get into the flow of the game.

In that way, it was absolutely understandable that Gabbert's best throw of the contest – perhaps his best throw of the preseason -- came two plays after he absorbed a big hit. The pop got his adrenaline pumping, it cleared all the worries from his head and he just started playing football. Two plays later, he zipped a nice out pass to tight end Asante Cleveland, who in turn shook free of his defender for a 14-yard touchdown.

If you trust everything that Jim Harbaugh has said in recent weeks (After all, he said Kaepernick and other starts would play in the preseseason finale), then it's clear that Gabbert will be the No. 2 quarterback. The only thing that's a bit fuzzy is whether the 49ers keep three quarterbacks.

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Gabbert got popped when right guard Ryan Seymour whiffed on a block. The quarterback followed through with his throw, then used his throwing shoulder to absorb the blow. Seymour had a mixed game.

So did Carter Bykowski, who played all 72 offensive snaps at left tackle. He allowed himself to be steamrolled on a sack by Whitney Mercilus and later was at least partly responsible for the “sack” in which officials ruled Gabbert was in the grasp of a defender before he scampered free for a first down. Bykowski also could have been called for a hold on Josh Johnson's touchdown to Bruce Ellington.

Still, it was an overall solid effort for a young player who had only gone up against reserve pass rushers the previous three games. Mercilus was a first-round draft pick in 2012. My guess is that that three reserve linemen are settled: Jonathan Martin, Adam Snyder and Marcus Martin. If the team keeps four in reserve, like it did at the end of last season, Bykowski is likely the fourth.

Speaking of the in-the-grasp sack, which was a dubious call, those watching on KPIX last night didn't see referee Walt Anderson flag Harbaugh 15 yards for arguing that call. Harbaugh seemed to say, “Do your (expletive) job,” to Anderson as he was walking away. Anderson stopped, turned around and threw the flag. Rightfully so.

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There was good pressure all night from the backup outside linebackers. Corey Lemonier and Aaron Lynch started the game while Chase Thomas may have had the best night with several strong defensive plays. It will be interesting to see if the 49ers can keep Thomas in some way, shape or fashion.

If there's an OLB quibble, it's this: Lemonier and Lynch are a bit one-note on their pass rushes. Lemonier always seems to use a speed rush while Lynch puts his shoulder down and uses a power move. If only there was a way to morph the two. (Paraag is looking into whether the 49ers would receive a roster exemption).

Dan Skuta, who presumably is one of the main players who will fill in during an Aldon Smith suspension, didn’t play at all on defense and was in for three snaps on special teams. Things That Make You Go Hmmmm. Could Skuta be one of the players the team is looking to move? Or did he get the night off because he is expected to be the starter ?***UPDATE*** I’m told Skuta is not on the trading block.

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I wrote about undrafted safety James (L.J.) McCray yesterday. He had a strong game both on defense (three tackles) and on special teams (two tackles). On one kickoff return, he was knocked down on his chest, bounced back up and made the stop. On the next, he came swooping up from the left side and knocked the legs out from under the return man. He looked like a wrecking ball.

By contrast, C.J. Spillman wasn't credited with any special teams tackles. If the 49ers want to go with someone proven, they'll stick with Spillman, who is going into the final year of his contract. If they pick youth, then McCray will be the surprise pick for the roster.

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Joe Looney was one of only three projected Week 1 starters to start the game. He had perhaps his best outing of the preseason and played center – and played it well – to boot. The other starters were nose tackle Ian Williams and center Daniel Kilgore. If Anthony Davis isn't ready to play in Dallas, Jonathan Martin, who started against Houston, would get the call at right tackle.

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Fullback Bruce Miller played just four snaps while his backup, Will Tukuafu, was out with a concussion he suffered Sunday. That meant plenty of ad libbing at the position, even more so after tight end/H-back Derek Carrier left the game with a hamstring strain. Veteran tailback Alfonso Smith filled in as did tight ends Cleveland and Kyle Nelson.

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Defensive end Demarcus Dobbs looked good, supplying plenty of pressure from the right side when he was in the game. I consider him a bubble player as well.

About This Blog

Matt Barrows 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 Sacramento Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the San Francisco 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green. Reach Barrows at mbarrows@sacbee.com.
Twitter: @mattbarrows

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