Mechanics are better, but Kap's passes still off
Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 20-9 exhibition loss to the Houston Texans, including barreling Frank Gore, two newcomer RBs carted away, David Akers’ magical left leg, Colin Kaepernick’s scattershot passes, a nasty rushing defense, Tramaine Brock’s rough night, A.J. Jenkins jetting behind the secondary, QB Josh Johnson, LB Eric Bakhtiari and much more? Check inside.
Thumbs up: The 49ers loaded up on offensive firepower during the offseason with the purpose of scoring more touchdowns this year, but if and when they need to turn to Mr. Reliable David Akers, his magical left leg is still in top working order. Akers made splitting the uprights with a 55-yard field goal look routine, and he also connected on a 50-yard boomer to go along with a 36-yarder to account for all of San Francisco’s points. After making a NFL-record 44 field goals last year, the 37-year-old, 14th-year veteran looks more than ready and able to pick up where he left off last season.
Thumbs down: And therein lies the rub. The 49ers can’t be settling for field-goal attempts from Akers so often as their offense bogs down the closer it gets to opposing goal lines. Akers attempted 52 field goals last season – 3.25 per game. If he approaches that number again this season – like he did Saturday against the Texans – the 49ers will have failed to improve their offense, particularly their red-zone offense, which was 30th in the NFL last season. The 49ers penetrated the Houston 20-yard line only once, with their longest drive reaching the 19.
Thumbs up: Frank Gore’s barreling first rush of the preseason vividly displayed why he still is The Man at running back in San Francisco despite all the new talent the 49ers brought in this year to add competition and depth at the position. In classic Frank Gore style, the eighth-year veteran blasted through a hole created by guard Mike Iupati on the left side, made a decisive cut and then carried tacklers for several yards before finally being dragged down after a 14-yard gain. That’s all the Niners needed to see of Gore, who was given the night off in last week’s exhibition opener. Don’t expect to see him much more in San Francisco’s final two exhibitions as the 49ers protect and save their three-time Pro Bowler – the franchise’s all-time leading rusher – for the games that count in September.
Thumbs down: One of those newcomers adding depth and talent in the backfield is Brandon Jacobs, who has looked fabulous since donning a 49ers uniform this summer. Jacobs was charging hard like a 260-pound steamroller in the open field when Houston defensive back Kareem Jackson cut him down with a helmet shot to his left leg just as Jacobs had planted it in the turf. Jacobs was on the ground for several minutes before coach Jim Harbaugh and trainer Jeff Ferguson had to arm-in-arm help him off the field. He then was taken by cart to the locker room. The Niners were mum about the severity of the injury, but it did not look good.
Thumbs down: And then, with 4:06 to play in the fourth quarter, second-round draft pick LaMichael James got tangled up trying to block a much bigger defensive lineman in pass protection. James also went down with a left leg injury and was on the ground several minutes before he had to be helped off the field with what looked like a bum ankle. James also was carted off the field into the locker room.
Thumbs up: Jacobs was in line for a handful of weekly carries this season, but he still hadn’t quite pushed past Kendall Hunter as Gore’s main backup, and Hunter continued to impress against the Texans with both roadrunner speed through the hole and power between the tackles. Hunter zipped off several nice runs before leaving the game after rushing six times for 46 yards, a 7.7 average.
Thumbs down: Speaking of James… He needs to run stronger and with more decisiveness like Hunter did as a rookie to make an impact this season in a big man’s game. And he doesn’t appear ready to return kicks at this level, even though the 49ers are giving him every opportunity to win a job doing that this season. The Niners surely must take Hunter over James in a heartbeat returning kickoffs at this point, and the team can’t feel good about the way James looked lost trying to get underneath a punt that was short and away from him. James muffed the punt before it deflected off his cleats and out of bounds to prevent the gaffe from becoming a turnover. On the two punts James did return, he had a 1-yard average. He needs to go north-south instead of east-west when returning those kicks. James late-game injury certainly won’t help his development as a returner or a rusher.
Thumbs up: Houston’s first two plays of the game were completions underneath coverage, but both plays displayed just how good middle linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis have become as pass defenders. Bowman almost had a first-play pick of Matt Schaub as he was practically taped to tight end Owen Daniels in coverage. Willis was all over big-play receiver Andre Johnson on a crossing pattern and took him down quickly in the open field. These two All-Pro linebackers are ferocious all-around players and have virtually no weaknesses.
Thumbs down: Vernon Davis has pretty much cured his occasional case of the dropsies the past few seasons, but the only pass he has seen come his way so far during the preseason bounced off the middle of Davis’ mitts when he had room to run in front of him.
Thumbs up: He’s wearing jersey No. 40 now, down from the No. 96 he wore last year and earlier this summer. Maybe that’s actually a sign Demarcus Dobbs is moving up in the 49ers’ plans as the second-year player continues to gain notice all over the field. Dobbs – who the Niners are now also trying as a blocking tight end, hence the uniform number change – saw action on 16 offensive plays and 17 defensive plays last week against Minnesota, and he once again was flashing on all three San Francisco units against Houston, including special teams. He was strictly a bottom-of-the-roster defensive lineman last year after making the team as an undrafted rookie, but now Dobbs is even getting a look at outside linebacker, yet another place he found himself on the field Saturday.
Thumbs up: When the starters were in the game, San Francisco’s elite rushing defense looked absolutely nasty against one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses. The Texans were second in the league in rushing last season, but they went nowhere against the Niners’ first-team D. Arian Foster, the NFL’s leading rusher from 2010 who finished fifth in the league last year, was stuffed when the starters were playing, gaining just 19 yards on his first eight carries before ripping off a 24-yard gain against San Francisco’s reserves.
Thumbs up: When Foster was stoned short of the first-down marker on a third-down carry, safety Dashon Goldson was in his face for some heavy jawing between two Pro Bowl players. Goldson wasn’t the only 49er leading the tongue brigade. These guys can talk the talk like they walk the walk. This defense backs down to nobody.
Thumbs down: Alex Smith was hit way too often – and way too hard – during his only two series in the game, when the 49ers’ starting quarterback was sacked twice to go with a few other heavy blows. The Niners had a difficult time protecting Smith in their preseason game against the Texans last year, too, so apparently nothing’s changed.
Thumbs down: Anthony Dixon’s best chance to make this team is as a short-yardage back, but just as he did in the NFC Championship Game last season, Dixon failed in that situation Saturday. With Jacobs out, Dixon got the call on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 20 early in the second quarter – and he didn’t come close to getting that yard. And thus, the 49ers got nothing out of a 13-play, 53-yard drive with the front-liners still in the game, which turned out to be their best offensive drive of the night.
Thumbs down: Cornerback Tramaine Brock and rookie safety Trenton Robinson were in great coverage position on a deep pass to Andre Johnson – and they simply let Johnson go up and get the ball between them for a 43-yard completion, the longest play of the game. Both players were in position to make a play on the ball, but Johnson took it away from then. That was part of a rough game for Brock, who was beaten several times in coverage – notably by Lestar Jean – missed a tackle near the goal line when Jean scored Houston’s only touchdown, then later was flagged 32 yards on a pass interference penalty that led to a Houston field goal. Brock is losing the battle for the No. 4 cornerback role to newcomer Perrish Cox, if he hasn’t lost it already.
Thumbs down: Brock’s miscue was one of seven San Francisco penalties that set back the Niners a negative 87 yards. The Niners were flagged for only 31 yards in penalties in last week’s exhibition opener.
Thumbs up: Newcomer QB Josh Johnson has struggled with his throws and accuracy in training camp practices, but he dropped a beautiful, well-thrown spiral into the hands of rookie A.J. Jenkins down the left sideline for a 32-yard gain, San Francisco’s longest offensive play. Jenkins, who looks like trouble in the open field, later got behind the Houston secondary twice on plays that could have been potential touchdowns had the 49ers got the ball to him. Johnson’s 102.1 quarterback rating was almost twice the rating of San Francisco’s other two backup QBs, Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien.
Thumbs down: Alas, on the next play after their 32-yard connection, Jenkins put a nifty stop-and-go move on a beaten Houston DB and got wide open over the middle with the end zone 10 yards a ahead of him. But Johnson, with time to throw, overthrew Jenkins badly on a play that turned out to be San Francisco’s best shot at a TD.
Thumbs down: Colin Kaepernick continues to look great running the read option – after faking a handoff, he had defensive end Tim Jamison following the running back into the hole and up the field while Kaepernick was scooting around left end for a 12-yard gain – but he also continues to struggle with his passing accuracy. Kaepernick’s mechanics are much better than last year and his release is smoother, but he still lacks the touch on his passes that the 49ers will need from him if they actually ever need to depend Kaepernick in a game. And the longer the throw, the more Kaepernick’s scattershot passes seem to go awry. Kap completed just 4 of 8 passes for 19 yards, pretty much matching his showing in the preseason opener, when he completed 5 of 9 passes for 40 yards. He also telegraphed two short passes that were jumped by Texans safety Quintin Demps, who should have intercepted both.
Thumbs up: He has no shot at making the final roster – not with Akers around – but rookie kicker Giorgio Tavecchio booted all four of his kickoffs deep into the end zone, and two of them out of end zone for touchbacks. The kid’s got a leg.
Thumbs up: He has played in just three regular-season NFL games despite seeing time with seven teams, but you just have to like the way Eric Bakhtiari keeps fighting for a job with the 49ers at outside linebacker. Bakhtiari is getting a longer look now after his two-sack performance in the exhibition opener, and against the Texans he looked strong against the run while finishing as the game’s leading tackler with seven stops – more than twice the total of any of his San Francisco teammates. He also had a QB hit and a tackle behind the line and is making a strong roster push midway through the preseason.
Thumbs up: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio usually plays it vanilla during the preseason, but he is innovative enough to put two of his young players in position to make plays on blitzes – which both did. Rookie safety Michael Thomas and rookie inside linebacker Joe Holland are long-shots to make the final roster, but each put some big plays on tape by rushing in untouched for big hits/sacks on well-timed blitz calls that found open lanes to the quarterback for both.