'49ers beat Super Bowl champs!' is not the headline from Saturday's game in Denver. Yes, they won 31-24, but as was the case last week it took the first-team offense a couple of drives to get rolling and they were again done in by fumbles -- two by Mike Davis and one by his chief competition for the No. 3 running back spot, DuJuan Harris.
The first-team offense eventually got on track with Blaine Gabbert hooking up with the guy who's become a favorite target, tight end Vance McDonald, three times for 38 yards. Like last week, the 49ers scored on their third drive, this time on a four-yard run by Carlos Hyde on which he received strong blocks on the right side from tackle Trent Brown, guard Andrew Tiller and center Daniel Kilgore.
Gabbert finished 6-9 for 69 yards with an 89.6 passer rating. San Francisco’s only touchdown pass, to receiver Dres Anderson, came in the fourth quarter from third stringer Christian Ponder, who famously was doing yard work six days ago. The pass went for 30 yards; Ponder also had a 22-yard read-option run for a touchdown. Both came against the Broncos reserve defense.
After the game Chip Kelly told reporters that the coaching staff had reviewed with Ponder the play that resulted in Anderson's catch, but that Ponder arrived so recently -- his first practice was Wednesday -- that he'd never practiced it.
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"Maybe we should do that more often," Kelly quipped at the post-game podium.
Ponder was 7-8 for 86 yards, leading all 49ers passers. He had a 151 passer rating. The highest rating possible is 158.3.
Before the game, the 49ers announced that six players -- Colin Kaepernick (shoulder), DeForest Buckner (lower leg), Arik Armstead (shoulder), Glenn Dorsey (knee), Bruce Ellington (ankle) and DeAndre Smelter (hamstring) would not play. Several others also did not suit up, including running back Shaun Draughn, who took a big hit to his back last week against the Texans, and outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who was punched in the eye during Wednesday's scrimmage with the Broncos. Rookie cornerback Will Redmond (knee) and safety L.J. McCray (knee) also did not play.
None of those injuries is considered long term. Buckner and Armstead were held out as a precaution; both would have played had the game counted.
Outside linebacker Eli Harold left the field after colliding with teammate Tank Carradine. The 49ers later announced that Harold had the wind knocked out of him. Harold started his second straight game -- he would have started whether Lynch could play or not -- and had a solid game, providing a nice push as an inside pass rusher to go along with an outside rush. Carradine also played well. Harold, Carradine, Brooks -- and rookie Ronald Blair -- likely will be the edge rushers at the start of the season when Lynch is serving his suspension.
With three defensive linemen on the bench, Tony Jerod-Eddie started at left defensive end next to Mike Purcell (nose tackle) and Quinton Dial (right defensive end). But he left the game with a chest injury. That sent second-year player Garrison Smith into the game. Smith played well. In fact, at times he looked like he was playing harder than his teammates, probably because, unlike the other 49ers defenders on the field with him, he is fighting for a roster spot. He finished with a team-high five tackles and a sack while outside linebacker Marcus Rush, who along with Smith was on the practice squad a year ago, had three sacks and forced fumble in the game and gave his Broncos offensive-tackle opponents fits all night. Both Smith and Rush had two tackles for loss.
Receiver Bryce Treggs (Cal) was the primary punt returner with Ellington out. Treggs had a 25-yard catch on a pass from Jeff Driskel, but he left the game after that play with an MCL tear; He was walking after the game and will not need surgery. Linebacker Nick Bellore left the game with with a knee injury and did not return; Kelly had no information on his condition..
Nickel cornerback Chris Davis, who jumped out against Houston, had another strong game. He allowed two receptions but was on the field throughout the first half. He also had a pass break up, a good tackle on third down and a near interception of a Mark Sanchez pass.
Mike Davis on the other hand ... With Draughn out, Davis was the No. 2 running back and broke off a 19-yard run. But he lost two fumbles. Davis is jockeying for roster depth with Harris, who fumbled near the goal line. (Last week's fumble by Harris was officially counted against quarterback Thad Lewis). That means Draughn, Kelvin Taylor and Kendall Gaskins are the only 49ers running backs who haven't fumbled this preseason. As Pro Football Focus noted, Davis does not have a history as a fumbler. He fumbled just twice in 233 carries over the two previous years, which includes his last year at South Carolina.
Blair, who by my count played three positions in the contest, also had a strong game. He was credited with just one tackle but was disruptive throughout. Blair lined up as an edge rusher in the team’s nickel alignment and as a down lineman in the base package. . ..Marcus Cromartie, who was a cornerback last year but who has been playing safety this season due to a dearth of players at that position, also stood out. Cromartie had a nice tackle as a gunner on punt coverage. In fact, Cromartie has been part of all the 49ers' top special teams units. He’s perhaps filling in for McCray on special teams as well as safety.
The 49ers offensive line had some lapses but played well overall. The Broncos, for example, gave up six sacks. The 49ers allowed one. Gabbert has not been sacked in six series so far this preseason. ... Anthony Davis (right tackle) and Joshua Garnett (left guard) played on the second-team line, which was on the field for most of the second and third quarters. Brandon Thomas lined up next to Davis at right guard and played well. ... The 49ers had 400 yards of offense (Denver had 406) after having 409 in the first preseason game against Houston. The 49ers had 163 yards in the first half; Denver had 255.
McDonald had 30 catches, 326 yards and three touchdown catches last year. Twenty-three of those catches, 281 yards and all three touchdowns came when Gabbert took over as starter after Week 8.