Tape Never Lies: Broncos Dominate 49ers

The 49ers played poorly in their second preseason game when they were shutout 34-0 by the visiting Denver Broncos. But there were some silver linings to take away after watching the game over again. We break down the tape.

It wasn’t pretty. But it wasn’t the end of the world, either.

The San Francisco 49ers took a preseason kick to the teeth losing in their first ever game inside Levi’s Stadium 34-0. They’ve been outscored 57-3 through two preseason games, with some starters playing just enough time to build up a sweat. Meanwhile, many starters haven’t even gotten that far.

Still, Sunday’s loss provided more questions than answers, particularly at backup quarterback. We took a look at Blaine Gabbert here, pointing out there’s a very small chance he won't be the team's backup, despite some poor play this preseason.

There are still eight quarters of “meaningless” football to played this August before the regular season starts Sept. 7. And to be sure, Gabbert will have plenty of opportunities to work out the kinks, improve on making progressions and, most importantly, deliver accurate throws. If he doesn’t, San Francisco will still have a guy named Colin Kaepernick running the offense.

There were a few positive developments amidst all the misery of the Bronco-induced drumming. Notably, a few rookies are starting to make positive impressions, and the defensive line is showing improvement after getting “pushed around” in Baltimore.

Here are the key takeaways from the tape:

One of the few high points from the 49ers came on their kick returns. On the day’s first play there were good blocks all around, including a massive pancake block from Dan Skuta and a solid seal from Demarcus Dobbs before fullback Bruce Miller was able to take it out to the 35.

Miller, Skuta and Dobbs all had good days blocking for their return men, who averaged 24.5 yards per return despite David Reed’s fourth-quarter effort when he fumbled at the 10-yard line. Bruce Ellington continues to look up to the task with LaMichael James out while recovering from his elbow injury. The fourth-round pick had returns of 32 and 24 yards.

Jim Harbaugh mentioned after the game he thought the running game worked reasonably well. The stat sheet didn't really say so. The team averaged 2.9 yards per carry. On Frank Gore’s first two (and only) runs, both Mike Iupati and Joe Looney did well to pull into the holes to allow Gore to gain nine and three yards on consecutive plays for a first down for the first team. Gore received three snaps. Michael Crabtree (3 snaps), Vernon Davis (7), Stevie Johnson (7), Anquan Boldin (7), Miller (8) will all play a more than they did Sunday when the 49ers play the Broncos in October.

When Kaepernick looked for Brandon Lloyd on 3rd-and-4 deep to the end zone, it looked like safety T.J. Ward hit him on the head, which could have been cause for a 15-yard flag. The incompletion set up Dawson’s 55-yard field goal, which he missed. In the regular season, there’s a good chance the 49ers go for it on 4th down instead of trying the long attempt, or try to pin the Broncos deep with a punt.

The wind at Levi’s Stadium will be something to monitor. So far, the talk about the new stadium has been the wind’s unpredictability, much like Candlestick.

Carlos Hyde played just 11 snaps and received four carries for 11 yards. On a 2nd-and-1 conversion he hit the hole very hard for a two-yard gain, but was stopped by a big hit from Brandon Marshall. Hyde said he was healthy following the game, but appeared to be a little jolted after that play and went to the sidelines. He came back in the game after getting the visor on his helmet removed.

On the Broncos’ first 3rd-down conversion, first-round pick Jimmie Ward had the tough task of covering slot specialist Wes Welker. Peyton Manning found Welker on an in-route in a tiny window. Safety Eric Reid was awfully close to making a play on the ball from the other side, but it was a perfect throw. Reid admitted after the game it was a throw that he probably should have gotten to.

Antoine Bethea left the game early in the second quarter with a concussion coming when he took a jarring hit from rookie wideout Cody Latimer on a running play. Bethea tweeted after the game, saying “I’m doing well and appreciate all of the concern!!” It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Bethea was used very sparingly, if at all, during the last two preseason games. Given Reid’s concussion scares last year, the 49ers don't want to worry about head injuries to both their safeties in 2014.

On Julius Thomas’ touchdown catch when he beat Dahl on a seam route, it looked like there might have been some confusion before the snap between Chris Borland and Chris Culliver. Borland wound up biting on the underneath route, in which Culliver was also covering, leaving Dahl in a bad spot against Thomas. We’ll know later this week, but it looked like Borland’s assignment was to play back in the middle of the field. Instead, Thomas’ was wide open for the 17-yard score.

Without sounding too much like the ex-player talking head guy, you cannot afford to make those kind of mistakes against someone like Peyton Manning, you guys.

It doesn’t look like there’s been much separation between Michael Wilhoite and Borland for the starting inside linebacker job next to Willis. Both players showed good things and areas in need of improvement. Borland is proving he is very good in pursuit against the run. Wilhoite made five tackles, one behind Ward, who led the team with six.

Rookie center Marcus Martin made his preseason debut, playing 52 snaps with the reserve offensive line. Martin did not play against the Ravens after coming into camp late while dealing with an ankle injury that also hindered his conditioning. But Martin showed well and didn’t have any glaring mistakes - depending on how you view Josh Johnson’s trip over his foot prior to his fumble.

Jonathan Martin played right tackle exclusively after moving to left tackle following Joe Staley’s departure against the Ravens. Carter Bykowski was the second left tackle on the field, and had a pretty good game. Last year’s seventh-round pick has shown development.

Joe Looney played better than he did in Baltimore. According to our friends at Pro Football Focus, none of the starters allowed a quarterback pressure, which includes Looney and Martin.

It was another long day for Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, who led the defense with 57 and 55 snaps played. In the second quarter, Dial made a nice play to stop on C.J. Anderson for a two-yard loss. The next play, Carradine got to quarterback Brock Osweiler on 3rd down, forcing him to check down to the running back in flat well short of the first down. Osweiler did very well to get rid of the ball before getting sacked, which would have been Carradine’s second in as many games.

Reserve nose tackle Mike Purcell had a solid showing after struggling against the Ravens. He was stout against the run, pushing interior linemen back and allowing both Dial and rookie Aaron Lynch to make tackles for losses. Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs struggled, as did the rest of the defense, against Denver’s hurry-up offense.

Before this next point I would like to acknowledge that none of the 49ers starting defensive linemen have played a down yet. Neither has Patrick Willis and, of course, NaVorro Bowman. But San Francisco’s defense has struggled defending the run in their nickel sets. And until it starts slowing it down consistently, it won’t be easy for them to get off the field this preseason.

Osweiler led a 10-play scoring drive at the end of the first half. The 49ers were unable to make a play while the Broncos went no-huddle. The big play was a 20-yard Jacob Tamme reception when he slipped in a tight spot between the zone’s of Nick Moody and C.J. Spillman. The coverage wasn’t bad, but it was a very good throw from the quarterback to fit the ball in a tight area. Tamme had another seven-yard catch down to the goal line three plays later on pick play in which Latimer picked Ward allowing Tamme to sneak by on the slant. Anderson scored on the one-yard run up the gut the next play.

Osweiler made a perfect throw deep down the right side line when he hit Latimer for a 33-yard score on the play after Blaine Gabbert’s interception to Tony Carter. Rookie corner Dontae Johnson was step-for-step with Latimer, but he looked up and slowed down at the last moment allowing the wideout to get separation and make a nice play on the ball. Osweiler did what Gabbert was unable to do in giving the receiver space to make a play on the ball.

Gabbert’s interception was under thrown as he looked for Quinton Patton on a seem route down the middle of the field. Patton might have been open if the ball was thrown deeper down field in front of him, but Gabbert’s throw bled right into the coverage for the easy interception.

Until that point, Gabbert wasn’t having such a terrible day. It was clear the version of the offense he was running required him to get the ball out quickly, which he did. He completed 8 of 14, including a couple of drops of catchable balls by intended targets. He connected with Ellington on 4 of 7 targets. But like his interception last week in Baltimore, Gabbert didn’t take his eyes off his receiver and made a poor throw. Gabbert has struggled mightily to make multiple post-snap reads in his first two preseason games.

And according to our friends at Pro Football Focus, Gabbert has yet to complete a throw longer than 10 yards in the preseason. He’s also thrown both his interceptions when trying to push the ball downfield.

Josh Johnson came in following Gabbert’s interception and turned the ball over his second snap of the game. Johnson got tangled with Martin’s feet, slipped, and instead of staying on the ground, he tried to get up and make something happen. Denver lineman Mitch Unrein stripped Johnson just before his knee hit the ground. The momentum Johnson had after last week to push Gabbert for his job stalled, at least for a week.

The defensive MVP for San Francisco might have been rookie corner Kenneth Acker, who registered a pass break up, forced an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone and had an interception, although it was brought back because Lynch was offsides.

Acker is a bubble player at the moment, but appears to be a favorite to land on the practice squad, at least. He has a chance to make the 53-man roster, but he would likely have to overtake Darryl Morris, who has been a key contributor on special teams. Acker plays special teams, but he hasn’t proven as valuable as Morris.

The 49ers learned the hard way last year how difficult it can be to land a talented corner on the practice squad last year when Marcus Cooper was plucked off waivers by the Kansas City Chiefs. Cooper wound up being an important player in the Chiefs’ secondary. Acker is 6’0” which would make him an intriguing option on the waiver wire should San Francisco try to sneak him on the practice squad.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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