Walker's athletic TD catch was a high-wire act
Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 35-3 rout of San Diego in Thursday’s preseason finale, including Delanie Walker’s spinning TD lunge, Colin Kaepernick’s best passing performance, a mauling O-line, a two-way Tukuafu, second-unit safeties collaborating, nasty backup middle backers, A.J. Jenkins’ steady emergence, the race for QB No. 3 tightening and much more? Check inside.
Thumbs up: After hurting his knee in practice a day after the Aug. 10 exhibition opener and not playing in a game since, Delanie Walker made his preseason statement with a spectacular effort to get into the end zone on his 32-yard touchdown reception that began a big night of scoring for the Niners. Walker displayed what an athletic weapon he can be when he hauled in a pass from Colin Kaepernick along the left sideline, broke a tackle near the 5-yard line, did a 360-degree spin in the air after being hit, landed on his feet and in one motion made a diving lunge over the goal line to paydirt. “He made a tremendous, athletic play,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Thumbs up: That, by the way, was the first touchdown pass of Kaepernick’s professional career. Kap entered the game on San Francisco’s sixth offensive play, and this was simply the best he has ever looked throwing the football in a 49ers uniform. He threaded a 37-yard pass to tight end Garrett Celek on a deep sideline pass, setting up his 12-yard scoring pass to rookie A.J. Jenkins four plays later. On that scoring strike, Kaepernick eluded a strong pass rush up the middle, bounced outside the pocket and rolled to his right before spotting Jenkins, who had worked his way wide open in the end zone. Kaepernick’s impressive final numbers before leaving at halftime: 12 of 18 passing for 158 yards and a passer rating of 131.2. He also gained seven yards on a scramble and evaded San Diego’s pass rush throughout the night. “Tonight was the first time I really felt like I just went out there and let it loose and just played ball,” Kaepernick said. “It felt good to finally get in a rhythm and just go out there and play.”
Thumbs up: That also happened to be the first touchdown reception of Jenkins’ young career. San Francisco’s first-round draft pick this year, Jenkins continues to emerge as a youngster who displays impact potential. Jenkins also pulled in a 24-yard reception and finished with a game-high four catches for 59 yards. And the first time he touched the ball Thursday, the rookie looked good turning the corner on a reverse that picked up nine yards. “I have a lot better grasp of what’s going on now,” said Jenkins, who started slowly this summer but is now is coming on strong and letting his talent take over. He may be a factor at receiver yet this season.
Thumbs down: Undrafted rookie Nathan Palmer has had a great summer to stick around to the final cut, but Kaepernick put a 20-yard strike between his numbers on a slant pattern, and Palmer let it bounce off his hands instead of securing the ball for a sizeable gain. That’s a catch NFL players have to make, especially fringe youngsters hoping to make it onto an opening-day roster.
Thumbs up: But Palmer sure looked good taking a simple hitch pass on the left side, making one move to the outside and then blazing down the sideline and out-running the San Diego defense to the end zone to complete a 51-yard touchdown play. That play will go a long way toward Palmer getting an invitation from the 49ers to join their practice squad next week. The rookie had seven passes thrown his way, catching three of them for a game-high 72 yards receiving.
Thumbs up: If he makes The Opening-day roster like he did last year, young Will Tukuafu could join a growing list of two-way San Francisco players. Tukuafu was in the backfield as a blocking fullback several times during San Francisco’s 11-play opening drive, and he had a crushing block at the goal line when Anthony Dixon culminated the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge. Two plays later, Tukuafu was shedding blocks as a defensive lineman to tackle San Diego running back Ronnie Brown short of a first down. Tukuafu’s blocking was what stood out to Harbaugh. “That was one of the best isolation blocks I’ve ever seen down by the goal line,” the coach said.
Thumbs up: San Francisco’s front-line fullback – starter Bruce Miller – also is a fine blocker, but the guy is also an offensive weapon that opponents have to account for. After creeping out of the backfield on a pass pattern, Miller got turned around near the sideline by a Kaepernick throw, but still made a tremendous lunging catch with his arms outstretched before absorbing a big hit from safety Atari Bigby. The nine-yard gain gave the 49ers a first-and-goal that set up their first touchdown.
Thumbs up: It was another solid night of hard-knocks running for Dixon in his late bid to retain his roster spot in a cramped backfield. The third-year veteran – whose days with the Niners appeared numbered after the team added LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright during the offseason – had a tackle-breaking 17-yard burst up the middle on San Francisco’s opening drive, was tough in short-yardage situations and finished as the game’s leading rusher with 55 yards on 12 carries.
Thumbs up: It’s going to be tough for the undrafted rookie to make the final roster, but if the Niners want to keep a third pass-receiving tight end, Garrett Celek sure put in a ringing bid for the job by consistently getting open against the Chargers and finishing with three receptions for 54 yards.
Thumbs down: Not that the Niners needed to see anything from him Thursday night, but if Alex Smith was just going to hand off on San Francisco’s first five offensive plays before taking the rest of the night off, what exactly was the point of even playing him at all? “We just wanted him to go out and break a sweat,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t going to have him throw the ball.”
Thumbs up: After a so-so showing so far this summer, second-round draft pick LaMichael James looked more electric than he had in any previous exhibition, showing more decisiveness with the ball in his hands and darting quickness in his cuts on a 34-yard return of the opening kickoff. He also made two defenders miss in the open field on a swing pass that went for 13 yards and rushed for 27 yards, part of his 143 all-purpose yards.
Thumbs down: But James bobbled three more punts – count ’em, because you know the 49ers certainly are – putting two of them on the ground for muffs before falling on top of them, continuing to show he is not ready to handle any kind of front-line role as a punt returner.
Thumbs up: The second-team safety combo of C.J. Spillman and rookie Trenton Robinson looked pretty good throughout the night and collaborated on a big play that turned the tide early in the game. Spillman ripped the ball out of the hands of Antonio Gates after a 13-yard reception, and Robinson alertly picked up the fumble and returned it 22 yards to set up San Francisco’s second touchdown two plays later.
Thumbs down: The 49ers began their first defensive series without one regular starter on the field. Sure, the team wanted to get a long look at reserves and backups fighting for jobs, but did their heralded first-unit defense really perform so well this summer that it couldn’t have used a few series of work as a unit 10 days before their regular-season opener against the vaunted Green Bay offense?
Thumbs up: Veteran Darcel McBath, who has made his presence known at safety this summer, looked pretty good playing center field on San Diego’s second offensive drive, making a decisive read and breaking on the football the second it left Philip Rivers’ right hand on a deep pass over the middle, swooping in for an interception at the San Francisco 6-yard line and returning it 19 yards. McBath, who also can contribute on special teams, is making a real roster push.
Thumbs down: Larry Grant is a superb backup middle linebacker to San Francisco stars Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman – Grant is good enough to start for several NFL teams – but he is hit-and-miss in pass coverage. And when he misses, it usually results in a big play for the opposition – like Ronnie Brown’s 14-yard reception on a third-and-9 play. Brown gained 11 of those yards after he slipped Grant’s coverage and ensuing missed tackle attempt.
Thumbs up: But that’s something of a nitpick for Grant, who was very active, and the starting tandem of Grant and Tavares Gooden were tremendous throughout the game in the middle of San Francisco’s defense. Gooden was nasty throughout his time on the field and blitzed several times, breaking through the San Diego line to sack quarterback Charlie Whitehurst for a nine-yard loss on third-and-8 from the San Francisco 31-yard line, pushing the Chargers out of field goal range on their deepest penetration into San Francisco territory during the first half. Gooden led the 49ers with six tackles and two QB hits.
Thumbs up: During their brief time in the game, San Francisco’s starting offensive line mauled their San Diego counterparts, with starting left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis making some notable blowout blocks to get the ground game going. San Francisco’s rushing offense was top-notch throughout the preseason, and the O-line had a lot to do with that.
Thumbs down: If Mike Person is going to be the 49ers’ top backup tackle now that Alex Boone has moved into the starting lineup at right guard, the team needs a little more from Person than it got Thursday, when he had his struggles in pass protection and also was called for a holding penalty on a running play in the red zone.
Thumbs up: Given an opportunity to play earlier in the game than during the first three exhibitions, Josh Johnson made his strongest push yet to stick on the roster as the third quarterback. He looked comfortable in and out of the pocket, spun several feathery throws while completing 9 of 14 passes for 125 yards, and also showed some nifty footwork while rushing for 50 yards on five carries. Johnson’s 132.4 passer rating also helped tell the story of his night.
Thumbs down: Meanwhile, holdover Scott Tolzien, last year’s No. 3 QB who seemed to have a firm grip on retaining his job this summer, suddenly doesn’t look like a lock for the job after ending his preseason with a thud. Tolzien looked out of rhythm throughout the night and threw an interception right into the hands of third-string linebacker Bront Bird, who returned it 22 yards to the San Francisco 10 to set up San Diego’s only points of the night. Tolzien completed only 3 of 8 throws and had a paltry passer rating of 15.6. The decision to keep either Tolzien or Johnson now looks like one of the toughest the Niners will have to make over the next 24 hours. “It’s been tight, and it remains tight,” Harbaugh said.
Thumbs up: Wow, what a way for the Niners to end what had been an up-and-down preseason. They again displayed their superior depth while dismantling the Chargers, out-gaining San Diego 495-244. It’s not often that you can say about a 35-3 victory that it wasn’t as close as the final score.