Tape Never Lies: 49ers beat Chargers

Colin Kaepernick (Getty Images)

The 49ers offensive line has some work to do, but overall it was a much-improved performance as San Francisco earned its first win of the preseason over the Chargers Sunday. We break down the tape and note standout performances from a few young players.

The 49ers ended their preseason losing streak, getting their first win at Levi’s Stadium Sunday with a 21-7 win over the San Diego Chargers.

As was noted in the game story, the 49ers received an uneven performance from the starting offense. The line, in particular, struggled to protect Colin Kaepernick, who fumbled twice. The struggles weren't limited to Mike Iupati, although he was the obvious culprit. Joe Staley allowed a pressure and Jonathan Martin had a bad play on a run at the start, although Martin held up well at right tackle for most of his outing, as did Joe Looney.

The first-team kick return unit, which is often a good indicator of favorites to land roster spots, consisted of these players: LaMichael James, Bruce Miller, Vance McDonald, Kassim Osgood, Dan Skuta, Tony-Jerod Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, Nick Moody, Chris Borland, C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone.

There are a number of bubble players in that group, but it’s worth pointing out where things stand in special teams coach Brad Seely’s eyes with just one preseason game remaining. And the 49er have to cut the roster to 75 players Tuesday afternoon.

Overall, it looks like the 49ers found a formula that worked when it came to playing time for their reserves. Glenn Winston had a nice game, Aaron Lynch took advantage of his snaps, as did Corey Lemonier. And it didn’t hurt to have reserve defenders play against reserves, instead of having to play early in games against starters as they did in the previous two weeks.

Here’s the breakdown of the tape:

On the offense’s first play from scrimmage, the 49ers had Martin and Staley out left of Iupati. Looney was the only lineman to the right side of Daniel Kilgore. He was flanked by Vernon Davis. It was a unique look, especially for the preseason considering how vanilla Greg Roman usually likes to keep things. Or it could be a misnomer Roman is putting on film to throw coordinators off. Either way, it didn’t work, as Corey Liuget stopped Frank Gore after beating Martin for a two-yard loss. Liuget was all over the field for San Diego, helping to make the tackle on Kaepernick’s first fumble.

Vance McDonald was open on a seam route on Colin Kaepernick’s first pass attempt, but the ball was badly over thrown, missing a potential 20-yard gain.

No surprise on the second drive, it was Liuget again shedding Iupati this time, to force the fumble the Chargers recovered at San Francisco’s 14. And Liuget again made a play on 3rd down on San Francisco’s third drive, beating Iupati inside to hit Kaepernick as he released the ball forcing an incompletion.

After the 49ers got the ball back following the defense’s stop on 4th down, outside linebacker Melvin Ingram nearly got to Kaepernick for a safety using an effective bullrush to push back Joe Staley. Ingram hit Kaepernick as he threw into double coverage down the right side of the field where the ball fell incomplete. On the 49ers’ next drive, veteran Dwight Freeney beat Iupati to stop LaMichael James for a big loss.

Iupati could be in preseason mode, or he might not be fully recovered from his fractured ankle suffered in the NFC Championship Game. But he is entering a contract year and is one of the offense's most important players when he's right. The 49ers will need him to play at a much higher level once the regular season starts, particularly next to a new center in Kilgore and perhaps a new right guard in Looney.

The starting defense predictably played a very bland scheme. The first drive was highlighted by Eric Reid’s 3rd-down tackle on Ryan Mathews when he flew up field to make the stop short of the first down after the pass in the right flat. Reid looks like he's in midseason form.

[RELATED: 49ERS FINALLY GET A LOOK AT STARTING DEFENSE]

On the third drive, Chris Culliver made his best play of the preseason to this point when he broke up a deep pass down the seam to backup tight end Ladarius Green. Tramaine Brock made his preseason debut and was not targeted in coverage during his 18 snaps.

Reserve nose tackle Mike Purcell made a stop behind the line of scrimmage on Donald Brown on a 3rd-and-short play. Purcell showed good burst through the line. He’s had two nice games in a row, although he played just seven snaps Sunday.

Ian Williams looked strong in his return with the No. 1 unit. It remains to be seen how the 49ers handle the nose tackle position when decision time comes. Purcell is eligible to return to the practice squad and the 49ers might want an insurance policy on Williams just in case. The 49ers only kept one true nose in Glenn Dorsey went Williams went down last year. Jerod-Eddie and Quinton Dial could presumably play there in a pinch.

LaMichael James had just nine yards on seven carries, but made key blocks in pass protection, including two straight on Blaine Gabbert’s consecutive completions to Vance McDonald and Bruce Ellington on the touchdown drive at the end of the first half.

On McDonald’s scoring play, James cut down another edge rusher on the left side. If Sunday’s game is a sign of things to come from that area of his game, James should see an increase in playing time with Kendall Hunter gone for the year with a torn ACL. It would be unwise to think the 49ers would keep ramming James up the middle in the regular season. And even with Carlos Hyde likely becoming the No. 2 back, James could carve out a change-of-pace role as he did in 2012.

On Jimmie Ward’s third-quarter interception, Lynch batted Brad Sorensen’s pass in the air, leading to fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson deflecting it before getting to Ward. It was a good play for the team's batch of rookies.

Ward had another strong game and has likely shown enough to earn the No. 1 nickel corner job. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just one reception in coverage Sunday.

Rookie free-agent pickup Glenn Winston had a breakout showing in the second half, racking up eight carries for 58 yards and a touchdown. He’s a big, physical runner (6’2”, 220 pounds) who embodies the type of back the team likes. Jewel Hampton, who averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in two preseason games, did not play Sunday. Hampton spent last season on the practice squad.

Lynch dominated reserve right tackle Mike Harris for much of the second half. He notched a sack and two pass breakups. It looks like San Francisco is tapping into that upside they saw in Lynch despite the "character issues" that had him fall down draft boards.

Also of note, Lynch spent seven plays on special teams. The fifth-round pick appears to be a lock to make the roster and will have to contribute in the third phase. The question for the 49ers becomes who Lynch displaces. Lemonier had another promising game and remains above Lynch on the depth chart. Dan Skuta is one of the team’s core special teamers and has been first off the bench in base situations when Ahmad Brooks or Aldon Smith has come off the field.

Depth, particularly at pass rusher, is a welcomed problem to have. And Lynch would be the clear candidate to take Smith’s spot on the roster if/when he is suspended. But when Smith returns, the 49ers will have a complicated decision to make.

As was mentioned earlier, San Francisco must make 15 cuts off 90-man the roster by Tuesday at 1 p.m. They entered Sunday’s game with 10 players on injury lists. So it’s unlikely there will be an exodus of 15 players before Thursday’s game in Houston. It’s also unlikely the roster would look that much different than it did Sunday. Any player on an injured list after Tuesday must miss at least the first six weeks of the season.

The roster will be cut down to 53 on Sunday. It’s clear, as players begin to step on offense and defense, they are pushing special teams “aces” for their roster spots. Osgood and Ventrone (who left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury) are competing with a number of the team’s young players for roster spots.

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