The 49ers pieced together an uneven performance in their preseason dress rehearsal, with dropped passes and penalties looming large in their 23-17 defeat Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts.
Jimmy Garoppolo played the entire first half and the first possession of the third quarter, but failed to orchestrate a touchdown drive. San Francisco instead settled for Robbie Gould field goals when passes fell to the turf after clanging off the hands of Garoppolo’s intended targets.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s defeat.
49ers running game gets going
The 49ers running backs struggled during the first two preseason games. They averaged just 3.3 yards per carry against the Cowboys and Texans. On Saturday, they racked up 24 carries for 113 yards, good for a 4.7-yard average thanks to the insertion of veteran Alfred Morris (17 carries, 84 yards) and improved blocking from the offensive line.
“I was a little disappointed ... as a whole with our run game the first two weeks,” Kyle Shanahan said. “We really tried to emphasize that in practice. I thought we had three good days of practice in the run game. I was really expecting it to be good coming into this game.”
Morris finished with a game-high 84 yards on the ground, gashing the inside of the Colts’ defense that was without starting middle linebacker Anthony Walker. The offensive line created wide running lanes starting with the first rush of the game, a 17-yard Morris burst that was called back due to an illegal formation penalty.
“It looked great, I hope. But it felt good just to get back in there and have that opportunity,” Morris said.
Added Shanahan: “I was happy with Alf from what I saw. It looked like he got some good looks and it looked like he always got a little bit more than what they blocked for, so he ran hard and I was pleased with him.”
Richard Sherman’s debut ‘better than expected’
Richard Sherman hadn’t appeared in a game since last November when he suffered a torn Achilles. He missed the first two preseason games because he tweaked his hamstring, and the 49ers weren’t going to take any chances with the 30-year-old’s health.
But he was back in action on Saturday, playing the entire first half when San Francisco’s defense limited the Colts to just 4.6 yards per play. Sherman came out of the game feeling well physically.
“I felt pretty good, better than expected,” he said. “I haven’t played in eight, nine months in a real game. So you never know how you’re going to hold up in long drives, short drives. In practice, you get four or five plays and you’re out. Every now and then they take you to six. But in a game, it could be a three-play drive, it could be a 12-play drive. ... So I was able to hold up.”
Sherman also didn’t allow a catch in coverage. He notched his first pass break up with his new team when he slapped away Andrew Luck’s pass to receiver Ryan Grant on a slant route in the second quarter. The three-time All-Pro said his coverage was up to his lofty standards.
“For the most part, (my man) was covered pretty well, I thought,” Sherman said.
Sherman isn’t likely to play in the preseason finale on Thursday against the Chargers, meaning he’ll have played in just one preseason game before Week 1 against the Vikings.
“I think (Saturday) was a success in terms of the amount of plays he got,” Shanahan said. “Just talking to him on the sideline, it seemed like he felt real healthy and he got out of it what he wanted to. The times I saw, it looked like he was able to make a couple plays also.”
Dropped passes problematic for Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo completed 9 of 19 throws (47 percent) for 135 yards with no touchdowns, but had at least five catchable passes dropped, as well as two near-interceptions by the Colts defense.
Receiver Kendrick Bourne couldn’t haul in a possible touchdown pass on a fourth-down slant route, and tight end Cole Hikutini couldn’t make the play from 19 yards out when Garoppolo threw a well-placed ball up the left seam to the end zone. Tight end Garrett Celek also had two drops, including one on third down just before Bourne’s.
“None of (the passes) were real easy, but they should be for the guys who dropped them,” Shanahan said.
The drops played a big role in San Francisco going 0 for 3 in the red zone with Garoppolo under center, which is slightly unsettling after the team failed to improve in the red zone during Garoppolo’s five starts to end last season. The game would have had a different feel had those two touchdown catches been made.
“There’s a lot of little details we need to get fixed up before we get back out there,” Garoppolo said, following his five possessions. “I got to put the ball in a better place to help them out, give them an easier play to make. There’s not really a coaching point to drops where a guy does something wrong. Sometimes they just drop it.”
Garçon takes Goodwin’s catch
Pierre Garçon made one of the 49ers’ longest receptions of the preseason when he streaked across the middle to pluck a pass from Garoppolo and take it 47 yards to the Colts’ 15-yard line.
But he wasn’t the intended target. The pass was meant for Marquise Goodwin, who was also in the middle of the field a few yards behind him.
“I had to take it away from him,” Garçon said with a big smile. “I just happened to be at that spot and Jimmy threw it. Jimmie wasn’t even looking at me.”
Garçon had just two catches for 62 yards. Rookie Richie James had a game-high 65 yards on three receptions.
“Happy it turned out to be a positive instead of both of us looking back like, ‘Who did you throw it at?’” Garçon said.
Garçon said he ran his route deeper than the play called for. In this case, it worked out. “I just happened to be at the right place in the right time,” he said.
Shake-up at linebacker
The 49ers started rookie linebacker Fred Warner alongside Malcolm Smith in an effort to kick-start the competition for those starting spots during Reuben Foster’s two-game suspension to open the season.
“We wanted to see him with the (starters) today,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know exactly how he did. When I looked up, it seemed like he did decent. But it will be good to evaluate that tape, see how we plan it next week to see who we start for Week 1.”
Warner played well, leading the team with five tackles, including when he knifed through the offensive line and dropped running back Jordan Wilkins for a three-yard loss. The BYU alum played the “Mike” position, where he was tasked with calling the signals for the defense.
When Foster plays, Smith is usually in that role. But Smith is trusted by the coaching staff to play both strong and weak side positions. Smith’s advice to Warner was to continue doing what he’s done on the practice field that’s allowed him consideration to start.
“Just stay calm and have fun,” Smith said. “Honestly, he’s got to enjoy being in the spot he’s in. It’s a great opportunity for him.”