San Francisco 49ers

49ers preseason: What to look for in Kyle Shanahan’s debut

Two hard hitters - one a surprise, the other not so much - get to unload in 49ers' preseason opener

The San Francisco 49ers open their preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, looking for players to fill key spots. Among them are a safety whose aggressiveness has been a surprise and a linebacker who is well known for hi
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The San Francisco 49ers open their preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, looking for players to fill key spots. Among them are a safety whose aggressiveness has been a surprise and a linebacker who is well known for hi

Anyone expecting fireworks from Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Kansas City may be disappointed. He didn’t do much game planning for the Chiefs and his team mostly will work on its most stock plays. The fancy stuff? He’s saving it for later.

“You never want to go out and look bad and get embarrassed,” Shanahan said this week. “But I also am very well aware that any play that works in the preseason will not work in the regular season. So you don’t want to waste anything either.”

Still, Shanahan’s head coaching debut – he is serving as his own offensive coordinator – will be intriguing in other ways, including the clarity it could give to some of the hazier roster battles in training camp. Both Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will call plays from the sideline.

On the run – Barring injuries, the five offensive linemen who will start against the Chiefs likely will be the ones who start Sept. 10 against the Carolina Panthers. Look for the 49ers to work on their foundational plays in Kansas City, especially the inside and outside zone runs that are so important in Shanahan’s offense. The two linemen on the right side – guard Brandon Fusco and tackle Trent Brown – probably fit best in a power-rushing scheme. How well can they get down the line of scrimmage on the outside runs? At tailback, veterans Carlos Hyde and Tim Hightower are one-two in the pecking order. Who will emerge from the group of youngsters behind them that includes rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida? So far, the undrafted Breida has looked like the faster and more well-rounded runner, but coaches will give Williams, a fourth-round pick, opportunities to gain ground.

Safety dance The 49ers’ defense is dependent on a savvy, athletic free safety. Because the scheme sticks so many players – including the strong safety – near the line of scrimmage, the free safety is the last line of defense. San Francisco’s issue is that their top player at the position, Jimmie Ward, has spent the first two weeks of training camp on the sideline with a bad hamstring. That’s given a host of young players plenty of practice time. The 49ers envision Jaquiski Tartt as a strong safety, but he’s been given a shot at the free-safety role. So has undrafted Lorenzo Jerome, whose instincts have led to a number of practice interceptions. Jerome likes to gamble. He hasn’t been burned yet in practice. Can he keep that streak going in a game?

Big bodies wanted From Aldrick Robinson to Trent Taylor, most of the 49ers’ top receivers are Smurfs. Even the biggest of the bunch, Pierre Garcon, is a hair under 6-feet tall. The 49ers would love to see one of the bigger-bodied players, a group that includes DeAndre Smelter, rookie Kendrick Bourne and veteran Louis Murphy, emerge from the pack. Perhaps it will be 2016 draft pick Aaron Burbridge, who isn’t huge but who is tough enough to stand out as a gunner on punt coverage. At tight end, the only lock to make the 53-man roster, rookie George Kittle, has missed most of the training camp practices because of a hamstring injury and won’t play against the Chiefs. That will give the others a chance to shine. If the 49ers remain interested in trading Vance McDonald, do they put him on display in the preseason or keep him under wraps to avoid injury?

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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