SANTA CLARA — Chip Kelly’s offense ran 14 more plays than Houston’s, had two 12-play drives in the first half and finished with 409 total yards. But it but managed just one touchdown in the 49ers’ 24-13 loss on Sunday.
“It was up and down,” Kelly said afterward. “… Once they settled down and got in a rhythm, I thought they did a really nice job of executing.”
Kelly’s famously fast attack sputtered both early – three of quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s first four passes were off target – and late in the game, but it gave a glimpse of its potential on the third drive .
Kelly made a name for himself when he was a college coach for brazen play calling, and he didn’t hesitate with 49ers facing 4th and 1 on their own 39-yard line. Running back Carlos Hyde gained five yards on the next snap. Three plays later Gabbert found tight end Vance McDonald down the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown.
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McDonald’s opponent had slipped coming out of the backfield, leaving the tight end with plenty of room to run. He cut inside to avoid the oncoming Houston safety and cruised the final 29 yards on his own.
For the next quarter of play, the 49ers offense – and the game itself – had the frantic feel of a Kelly-coached game. San Francisco ran 50 plays to 25 for Houston in the first half. The 49ers gained 302 yards to Houston’s 89 and led 13-7 at halftime.
“You look at ball games in the last year – we were 52 (plays) total through the whole four quarters,” McDonald said. “Yeah, it’s really fun. I knew this offense, going into the first preseason game, would open things up. It was just fun to get out there and let loose and wear the defense down.”
They had trouble pulling away on the scoreboard because of two fumbles, one by Hyde in the first quarter that the Texans returned 41 yards for a touchdown, and another in the second quarter that DuJuan Harris turned over near the Houston goal line at the end of a 12-play 49ers’ drive.
“That’s a 14-point swing,” Kelly said. “We need to win (the turnover differential) if we’re going to win this season.”
After his touchdown to McDonald, Gabbert yielded to backup Thaddeus Lewis late in the first quarter having connected on 4-10 passes for 63 yards, a touchdown and a 95 passer rating. Lewis was 12-21 for 97 yards before leaving the game with a lower leg injury in the third quarter.
“We wanted to end of a high note,” Gabbert said of his final drive. “We wanted to go out and kind of set the tone for how this season goes.”
Since making him their head coach in January, the 49ers have insisted that Kelly’s style fits the team’s personnel – which largely was assembled for a power-running offensive system – because, above all else, Kelly likes to run the ball.
That was the case Sunday as the 49ers gained 236 yards on the ground.
Hyde broke a 22-yard gain on his first run of the 49ers’ second series. But he was later hit in the hole by nose tackle Christian Covington – who was being blocked by right tackle Trent Brown on the play – and fumbled. Linebacker John Simon grabbed the ball and ran in for a touchdown.
Instead the 49ers were led by backup running back Mike Davis, who had just 58 yards last season and who, until Week 17, was in danger of finishing with a per-carry average of less than 1 yard.
Davis on Sunday looked quicker and more decisive than he did as a rookie in rushing for a game-high 72 yards, including a long run of 44 yards. Davis had the fourth-most yard of any rusher after one week’s worth of preseason games.
The bulk of Davis’ carries came behind the second-team offensive line that featured right tackle Anthony Davis and first-round pick Joshua Garnett, who played left guard. Kelly highlighted that unit after the game and said that, with the exception of left tackle Joe Staley, coaches have not yet determined which offensive linemen will start in Week 1.
One of the players with whom Mike Davis is competing for a roster spot, Harris, fumbled on Houston’s 2-yard line in the second quarter. Harris finished with 29 yards on six carries while the team’s top backup, Shaun Draughn, had two carries for 12 yards before leaving the game after a hard hit in the second quarter.
Rookie quarterback Jeff Driskel had 61 rushing yards but only 18 yards through the air.