Dixon capped first two drives with 1-yard TD runs
With Frank Gore getting most of the night off Thursday after signing a big contract extension, Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon stole the show in his place and led the 49ers to a 20-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers in an exhibition finale at Qualcomm Stadium that evened San Francisco’s final preseason record at 2-2.
Dixon capped San Francisco’s first two drives with 1-yard touchdown runs as the 49ers built a big early lead that they never relinquished. They were the first touchdown drives by San Francisco’s first-unit offense during the preseason.
Thursday’s game was a last chance for rookies and other players on the bubble to impress the coaches before the final roster cutdowns on Saturday, and several of those players on the San Francisco roster did just that.
Then it's on to opening day on Sept. 11, when the 49ers will open the season at home against the defending NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks.
San Francisco’s running game looked impressive against a San Diego first-string defense that finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense. The Niners churned for 54 yards on the ground on the game’s opening possession, which covered 80 yards behind the efficient direction of quarterback Alex Smith, who completed five of six passes on the 14-play drive.
“A 14-play drive and put it in, that’s the way you want to start games,” Smith said.
The 49ers finished with 160 yards rushing, including 57 on 11 carries by Hunter, who finished as the NFL’s preseason rushing champion with 231 yards on 35 carries, a 6.6 average.
Gore started the game a day after signing a $21 million, three-year contract extension, but he immediately left in favor of Hunter, San Francisco’s fourth-round draft choice who entered to replace Gore ahead of Dixon for the first time this summer. Hunter ripped off a 21-yard run on third down to key the opening drive.
Both of Smith’s two series of action ended with touchdowns as the 49ers rebounded from an embarrassing 30-7 loss to Houston last week when their offense looked pathetic.
“I don't know if we had anything to prove," Smith said. "We definitely wanted to get the taste out of our mouth from last week, though. Get some rhythm, convert on some third downs, move some chains and hopefully put points on the board, and we were able to do that.”
San Diego held out offensive stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Running back Ryan Mathews, coming off an uneven rookie season, showed his speed with a 56-yard scoring burst in the second quarter.
But on San Diego’s first offensive possession, Mathews failed to pick up blitzing San Francisco inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who sacked quarterback Billy Volek, forced a fumble and then recovered it. That set up Dixon's second TD run.
That was one of six sacks by the 49ers, who put consistent pressure on San Diego quarterbacks throughout the evening. Rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith, San Francisco’s first-round draft pick, led the way with game-high totals of seven tackles and 2.5 sacks.
The 49ers’ much-improved effort on offense was keyed by an offensive line that had a turnaround performance after its poor outing against Houston five days earlier.
“'I was definitely pleased the way the offensive line played," Harbaugh said. "I thought they played with a lot of urgency and it's been a challenge for them all week. It was a short week, but a good week."
Dixon complemented Hunger with 45 yards on 11 carries. The 49ers also got 35 yards rushing from fourth halfback Xavier Omon. Dixon finished the preseason with 129 yards rushing and Omon finished with 121.
"It was simple," Dixon said. "I stayed low, lowered my pads, got up in there behind my big boys and we made it happen. It gives you more confidence, and once you get your confidence to a certain level, you can do whatever."
Rookie Jordan Todman also lost a fumble for the Chargers, who missed the playoffs last year because of special teams gaffes and turnovers. Rookie quarterback Scott Tolzien threw an interception and was sacked five times. Tolzien also passed for 226 yards and threw a nine-yard TD pass to Seyi Ajirotutu with 1:21 left to finish the scoring.
“Obviously you can't win in this league if you turn the ball over,” said San Diego coach Norv Turner, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 2006. “I'm disappointed that we had the two turnovers."
The Chargers actually had three turnovers, with linebacker Alex Joseph also recovering a fumble for the 49ers and rookie Chris Culliver recording an end-zone interception with 6:31 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers, in turn, intercepted 49ers rookie Colin Kaepernick twice, giving the second-round draft pick five interceptions and no touchdown passes in his first NFL preseason.
Kaepernick came on early in the second quarter in place of Smith and was intercepted by rookie cornerback Marcus Gilchrist in the end zone. Gilchrist also had a hand Kaepernick’s second interception later in the quarter when he tipped a third-down pass that picked by Dante Hughes.