Here are a few thoughts after re-watching the 49ers’ road loss Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts in their third preseason game, the unofficial dress rehearsal before the start of the regular season Sept. 9 in Minnesota.
Small mistakes outweigh the positives
The 49ers starters didn’t have any problems marching down the field and into the red zone against a Colts defense that ranked 29th in yardage and 30th in scoring last season. But the offense couldn’t finish drives with touchdowns, much like it struggled to throughout the 6-10 campaign last fall when it ranked 27th in red-zone efficiency. The Jimmy Garoppolo-led attack had drives of 75, 59 and 68 yards — but only two field goals to show for it.
Going 0 for 3 in the red zone Saturday proved to be the deciding factor in the 23-17 loss.
“There’s a lot of little details that we need to get fixed up before we get back out there,” Garoppolo said afterward. “There’s a lot of good things. We moved the ball well, but it’s just the little details I think we need to fix.”
A handful of plays come to mind.
On the first drive, tight end Garrett Celek dropped an easy pass on third-and-one from the Colts’ 6-yard line. It was a misdirection screen that’s a staple in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Celek has made that play plenty of times over the last two seasons, but not there.
On the next snap, Garoppolo fired a high fourth-down pass to receiver Kendrick Bourne running a slant. It was a catch Bourne could have made, but Garoppolo made it difficult by throwing it hard and off target. The 49ers turned it over on downs (they would have taken the field goal in a regular-season game).
The next possession started with four consecutive runs for 36 yards. The offensive line had no problem getting push at the line of scrimmage and creating wide running lanes for Alfred Morris and Jeff Wilson Jr. On a second and five, Morris ran behind Joe Staley for 10 yards down to the 2, setting up a first-and-goal and likely touchdown. But wideout Pierre Garçon was flagged for holding, putting the offense back at the 19.
Second-year tight end Cole Hikutini dropped a possible score the next snap on one of Garoppolo’s best throws of the game, finding a small window between two defenders up the left seam. It wasn’t an easy catch, to be sure, but it was a play Hikutini needed to make, particularly while competing with Cole Wick for the No. 3 tight end job. For now, it appears Wick has the leg up in that battle. The 49ers settled for Robbie Gould’s first field goal.
In those two possessions, the 49ers scored three points when they could have put up 14.
Pass rush shows promise, but only gets home once
The 49ers had Arik Armstead (hamstring) and Solomon Thomas (concussion) back from injuries along the defensive line. They both played well in conjunction with DeForest Buckner and the combination of edge rushers outside. The only problem: they didn’t convert enough of their pressures into sacks.
The first third-down play of the game was a microcosm of San Francisco’s focus up front when it comes to improving the pass rush. Thomas and pass rusher Cassius Marsh ran a two-man stunt, with Thomas starting inside and making a move outside. He pushed his way to Andrew Luck, but didn’t finish the sack. Fortunately for the defense, the pocket had collapsed and a combination of Buckner, Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu took Luck to the ground to force a punt. Attaochu was credited with his first sack since joining the club in the spring. Running those two-man games correctly has been a focus all offseason since hiring new assistant defensive line coach Chris Kiffin.
Otherwise, the first-team defense struggled to contain Luck within the pocket. Luck is elusive and difficult to bring down, which is why he was Indianapolis’ leading rusher throughout the first half. His 15-yard scamper on third and 13 in the second quarter was an example of a play San Francisco’s defense would like back. Luck found tight end Eric Ebron for a touchdown the following play.
On the scramble, Armstead appeared to have a shot to get another sack and take the Colts out of field goal range near the 40-yard line. But Luck was quick to sidestep to his right, where he avoided Thomas and Dekoda Watson before finding space. San Francisco’s secondary was in man coverage with their backs to the quarterback.
Armstead getting to Luck would have been the key difference between forcing a punt and the Colts’ getting to the end zone.
▪ Joshua Garnett played well, as Kyle Shanahan said in Sunday’s conference call. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Garnett the favorite to start at right guard after stringing together good performances the last two weeks, though the coaching staff feels comfortable with Mike Person. Garnett’s ascension is a surprising development after it appeared he was on his way out when struggling to get on the practice field earlier in training camp due to a knee contusion.
▪ The 49ers had cornerback Tyvis Powell play safety throughout the second half. That could have two meanings: He has already lost the battle for a reserve role at cornerback — or the coaching staff likes him enough on special teams to see if he can provide versatility on the back end. Chanceller James was the presumptive favorite to back up strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, but Powell might be contending for that roster spot with final cuts looming Saturday. James could go to the practice squad after missing his entire rookie campaign in 2017 with a torn ACL.
▪ It would be surprising if Morris didn’t make the team after logging 84 yards on 17 carries, including going 3 for 3 on short third-down conversions. Morris (5-foot-10, 222 pounds) would seemingly balance out the running back group that features 205-pound Jerick McKinnon and 200-pound Matt Breida. That would likely spell the end for Joe Williams, though he could be placed on injured reserve if he’s not outright released or sent to the practice squad. Jeremy McNichols and Wilson are also practice squad candidates.
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