5 takeaways: 49ers preseason opener vs. Dallas Cowboys
Here are five observations from the 49ers’ 17-9 victory in their preseason opener Saturday night over the Dallas Cowboys.
1. Hurd with a big splash
Receiver Jalen Hurd, the recent third-round draft pick, was more known for getting into fights with teammates than his production on offense. The former running back opened training camp limited to participating in running plays where he could show off his physicality as a blocker and irritate defensive backs.
But he offered a whole lot more Saturday. Hurd scored two touchdowns in different ways. The first came from Nick Mullens on a bootleg crossing route – a staple of Kyle Shanahan’s offense – which Hurd finished by running through a tackle from 223-pound safety Kavon Frasier at the goal line. The second was a fade from C.J. Beathard, in which Hurd utilized his 6-foot-4 frame to snatch the ball over former 49ers defensive back Tyvis Powell, who’s tall for his position at 6-2.
With top slot receiver Trent Taylor having surgery Friday to repair a fractured little toe, Hurd could be in for a much larger role early in the season than initially anticipated. His game couldn’t be any more different from Taylor’s, but he could quickly turn into a pivotal part of the offense if Saturday’s NFL debut was an indication. Hurd finished with three catches on five targets for 31 yards.
2. Quarterback battle kicks off
Jimmy Garoppolo is the 49ers’ starting quarterback, but there remains some intrigue about the situation behind him on the depth chart. Nick Mullens was given the start Saturday, indicating he might have a leg up on C.J. Beathard to become Garoppolo’s backup.
Mullens had an uneven first half before Beathard took over after the break. Mullens completed 11 of 17 for 105 yards with a touchdown and interception. His quarterback rating (76.8) and yards per attempt (6.2) left plenty to be desired, though he had two passes dropped that would have gone for sizable gains.
Richie James Jr. was the culprit on the first. It happened on San Francisco’s first snap. He appeared to bring in a 19-yard catch, but the ball squirted from his hands and the Cowboys recovered as the play was initially ruled a fumble before review. Kendrick Bourne, who has played well throughout training camp, had a drop on a deep play.
Beathard’s first snap was a sack, but he went on to complete 6 of his next 8 attempts for 65 yards before throwing an interception to safety Donovan Wilson over the middle while looking for Hurd. Beathard’s best play might have been a deep, 45-yard connection to rookie Deebo Samuel, which set up Hurd’s second score.
Beathard wound up leaving the game midway through the fourth quarter for fourth-stringer Wilton Speight, who previously didn’t get a single full-team rep during practices. Beathard finished 13 of 17 for 141 yards with a touchdown and interception. His passer rating was 95.5.
Is there any more clarity on who’s winning the backup quarterback battle after Saturday? Not likely.
3. Pettis, Witherspoon not given veteran treatment
Shanahan let his disdain for the preseason become known this week when he said he would “rather have zero (exhibition games) than four.” He proved it by sitting 28 players Saturday.
But there were two notable players expected to have big roles who played: receiver Dante Pettis and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.
Witherspoon’s appearance was a little more warranted given the 49ers were without Jason Verrett as he battles an ankle injury and they certainly weren’t going to play Richard Sherman. But he missed practice recently with a glute injury, which would have justified sitting this one out.
Pettis’ inclusion raised some eyebrows. He’s expected to be a starter whom many believe could step forward this season. But he’s been up and down in training camp, struggling with drops and physicality, particularly in the middle of the field.
Shanahan publicly aired out his receivers earlier in the week when he said he wanted both the young players and veterans to step things up. Pettis was targeted just once but finished with no catches, and was forced to return punts, which is how he injured his knee early last season against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Perhaps forcing Pettis to play in a meaningless game was a not-so-subtle message that he needs to play with more urgency.
4. Walter and Wilds carry the load
The 49ers came into the game with three tailbacks available: Raheem Mostert, undrafted rookie Austin Walter and Brandon Wilds, who was signed nearly five hours before the game began. Their once-deep running back group has taken on water lately. Second-year pro Jeff Wilson Jr. has been dealing with a calf injury that’s kept him from practicing since early in camp. He was expected to play a lot during the preseason.
Jerick McKinnon is dealing with soreness in his surgically repaired knee, and the 49ers weren’t about to trot out Tevin Coleman in a game a month before the regular-season opener.
Mostert left the game in the first half after suffering an apparent concussion, leaving Walter and Wilds as the only two available running backs. Walter had 37 yards on 12 carries (3.1 average) while Wilds was given six carries for 28 yards (4.7 average). The 49ers finished with 88 yards on 25 carries behind their reserve offensive line, averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
Expect Walter and Wilds to continue getting preseason carries while the 49ers lick their wounds.
5. Colbert ejected
The 49ers were dealing with similar dwindling numbers at safety. They’ve been without Jimmie Ward since late May because of a fractured collarbone and decided to sit starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who’s missed nearly half his games because of injuries the past two seasons.
The coaching staff was banking on Adrian Colbert to have a heavy workload Saturday, but he was ejected in the third quarter for making an unnecessary hit on defenseless receiver Cedrick Wilson. Colbert lowered his head to initiate contact, which is a major point of emphasis from officials. Plus the hit was late. It was a bad decision by the third-year defensive back.
Colbert was the starting free safety to begin last season. He suffered a high ankle sprain in October that required season-ending surgery, and he’s recently been passed over on the depth chart by converted cornerback Tarvarius Moore, who was forced back into the game after Colbert was ejected.
Suffice to say, Colbert’s status on the 53-man roster is far from assured and getting ejected for an unnecessary hit isn’t going to help his cause.