A 49ers team that mustered only three points in its previous two exhibition games beat the San Diego Chargers 21-7 Sunday, but most of the damage was done by backups.
The team’s starting offense gained only 14 yards on its first three drives before putting together a 55-yard drive that ended in Phil Dawson’s field goal.
Through three games, Colin Kaepernick and Co. have managed just six points and, at least among fans and media, the offense has replaced the Levi’s Stadium grass and backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert as the biggest concern entering the regular season.
But coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t seem all that worried and said he saw some “good things.”
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“All 11 playing together in a more precise way,” he said. “I thought it was better today.”
Harbaugh said Kaepernick and other first stringers would play in Thursday’s exhibition finale in Houston just as they did in last year’s finale.
The 49ers’ previous two exhibition flops, in which they were outscored 57-3, were explained away by the fact the team hardly played any of its starters.
That wasn’t the case against the Chargers. The 49ers were at near full strength on offense and defense but still struggled, particularly in the first quarter, when their offensive line was steamrolled by San Diego. Kaepernick was rattled and hit four times, including two major blows from behind that caused him to lose the ball.
On the first, a Kaepernick scramble on the opening drive, officials couldn’t tell who recovered the ball and the 49ers retained possession. Kaepernick was sacked on his second fumble, and San Diego recovered at the San Francisco 14-yard line.
The lapses came not from the right side of the line, where Joe Looney and Jonathan Martin have been filling in for missing starters Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, but from the left side. Guard Mike Iupati, who is hoping for a big payday in the upcoming free-agent market, was the main culprit, allowing his man, defensive tackle Corey Liuget, to slip free several times.
Like his coach, Kaepernick sloughed off the rough opening.
“To me, it’s football,” he said. “You’re going to get hit.”
The offense finally began to click in the second quarter when Kaepernick completed five consecutive passes before the drive bogged down and Dawson was called upon for a 39-yard field goal. The veteran kicker also struck from 28 yards after going 0 for 2 in the team’s new stadium last week against Denver.
The 49ers’ backups then entered and brought a punch that had been missing in previous warmup games.
The Chargers had only 119 yards in the second half and were intercepted twice – by rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward and cornerback Darryl Morris.
Gabbert, who entered with a 17.9 passer rating, was 5 for 7 on the team’s final drive of the half, including a nice toss to rookie wide receiver Bruce Ellington on a crossing pattern that picked up 19 yards.
Three plays later, Gabbert found tight end Vance McDonald coming out of the backfield and hit him in stride for a 6-yard touchdown, the first as a 49er for both players and the first by a 49er at Levi’s Stadium.
Gabbert finished with a 110.4 passer rating, the highest of all four 49ers quarterbacks.
“I think the biggest thing is, we stuck to the process,” Gabbert said. “We stuck to this game plan all week, got a lot of good quality reps in in practice and everyone did their job. We were on the same page; communication was at a high level. And when we do those things, you can see the level we can execute at.”