Pass after pass, Jimmy Garoppolo found his target, the chains moved and the 49ers passing attack looked ready to pounce on its regular-season challengers.
Coach Kyle Shanahan wouldn’t go so far as to say that, however. After losing to the Houston Texans 16-13 on a last-minute touchdown, Shanahan revisited what looked like a positive start and actually was critical of it and even Garoppolo.
Saturday night’s opening-series touchdown drive wasn’t as smooth as Shanahan wanted it, and Garoppolo’s second series went swell until it ended with a couple penalties on Weston Richburg and an interception on a high pass off Dante Pettis’ hands.
“I wish we could have stayed out there longer,” Shanahan said. “We should have finished with two scores, but we had a stupid penalty that took 25 yards because there were two of them. I didn’t like the way it ended with that group. It was hard not to put them out one more drive.”
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Garoppolo’s stat line (10-of-12 passing, 136 yards, one touchdown, one interception) reflected more than his familiar poise and accuracy. His receivers and offensive line stepped up, just as they did last December when the 49ers won here in Garoppolo’s second start.
But Shanahan described flaws in his star quarterback’s game. Although Garoppolo’s touchdown strike to Trent Taylor came after he buzzed through his progressions, Shanahan said that aspect needs work.
“It’s not always perfect. It’s what we’re trying to get him to do better and better each week,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes he doesn’t always go through it right and still makes some plays.
“We’re hard on him about that stuff. By no means was it perfect. There was a number he could do better on. There were a couple times he didn’t do perfect, but he made plays and kept us on the field. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and keep coaching.”
Garoppolo’s response: “There are obviously things we need to fix up at this time of year, so we’ll try to get those corrected.”
Defensively, the 49ers weren’t sharp, allowing an opening-series touchdown for the second straight exhibition and enhancing concerns about their lack of pass rush and pass coverage. The Texans regained the lead on a last-minute touchdown catch by Vyncint Smith as Emmanuel Moseley trailed in coverage.
But Garoppolo and the offense provided more than enough highlights, starting with a 40-yard completion down the left sideline to Marquise Goodwin at the Texans’ 35. Other beauties included a 24-yard, fourth-down toss to Kyle Juszczyk and a third-down, 2-yard touchdown strike to Taylor.
Shanahan said that fourth-down escape didn’t go as planned — and to be fair, that’s how football often unfolds.
“He (looked) to the side we wanted him to, then didn’t throw to anyone there, which made me very nervous on fourth-on-1, then he ended up finding someone very late who was a lot more open, so I quickly got over it and called the next play,” Shanahan said.
Garoppolo’s final pass got intercepted: a 20-yard throw on first-and-35 that sailed high off Dante Pettis’ fingers, with the interception recorded by Stanford product Johnson Bademosi. Shanahan put blame on both Garoppolo and Pettis.
Garoppolo repeatedly stayed in his pocket’s safe confines, and although offensive tackles Joe Staley and rookie Mike McGlinchey were solid bookends, it must be noted that the Texans did not play seven defensive starters, including pass-rushing demons J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
As for the right guard competition, Mike Person played the first series before being relieved by Joshua Garnett, whose exhibition-season debut included a second-quarter pancake block.
“I played half the game and my knee feels great, so I feel it is a big stepping stone for me,” said Garnett, who gave way to Jonathan Cooper late in the third quarter.
Clutch passing — Garoppolo was 6-of-6 for 106 yards on third-down passes in the opening quarter, and if you tack on his 24-yard completion to Kyle Juszczyk on fourth-and-1, he had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in those clutch situations.
Not surprisingly, Garoppolo often went to last season’s go-to options: Marquise Goodwin (three receptions, 77 yards) and Trent Taylor (two catches, seven yards, 1 touchdown). The other third-down receptions was to Cole Wick, who’s filling in for the injured George Kittle (shoulder). The only third-down pass that didn’t yield a first down was an 8-yarder to Goodwin, setting up the Juszczyk catch in which Garoppolo rapidly went through his progressions and found the fullback open on the right flank.
The pass-oriented start offset a lackluster rushing effort, as Jeremy McNichols got the start and Joe Williams was first off the bench instead of the newly signed Alfred Morris.
Welcome aboard, Weston — Let’s not tee off on new center Weston Richburg for his back-to-back penalties that hindered the 49ers’ second series. Instead, consider it his coming-out party, showing the ornery side attached to his reputation.
Richburg disputed a holding penalty the second it was called on him, and officials flagged him for that debate. Yes, he’ll have to watch that temper come the regular season, but Richburg brings an angry side to an offensive line otherwise full of nice (but solid) guys. You can bet whoever starts at right guard is going to have a demanding center next to them, so good luck Person, Garnett and Cooper.
Shanahan, as he should as coach, took umbrage publicly with Richburg’s unsportsmanlike conduct and was “extremely” disappointed in the team’s 15 penalties (150 yards).
“We’ll look at each one, some you can control, some you can’t, always the pre-snap penalties bother me most,” Shanahan said. “There were definitely some, especially the one on Richburg, that hurt us and are unacceptable.”
Defensive struggles — Reuben Foster made Reuben-esque plays, De Forest Buckner got pressure amid double teams, and the 49ers defense is still lacking play makers to help them. Mind you, the 49ers starting defense was without cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker Malcolm Smith and defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead.
Sherman suited up for warmups (complete with a left-elbow pad) but did not make his 49ers debut and changed into a T-shirt by kickoff. Coming off hamstring and Achilles issues, he does look on pace to play in the regular-season opener, if not next week’s game at Indianapolis. Sherman’s replacement, Jimmie Ward, gave up a couple third-down conversion catches.
Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson was 5-of-8 for 73 yards on the Texans’ opening possession, culminating in a fourth-and-goal, 1-yard touchdown pass to former 49ers receiver Bruce Ellington, who easily sidestepped safety Jaquiski Tartt at the line of scrimmage.