The time has finally arrived fellow Faithful. Week 1 of Preseason football is officially underway; coaches are taking notes on who could or could not make the final 53. As we all know, the 49ers’ defense last year was atrocious, being the worst run defense in the league in 2016. The arrival of new GM John Lynch and HC Kyle Shanahan has given fans hope of changing that, as they have completely overhauled the roster to suit their plans and tastes. They added numerous free agents to revamp the defense as well as drafting defensive players with their first three draft picks. Led by first time Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defense will have a whole new look with their 4-3 scheme featuring a single high safety. Here’s my look at Friday’s opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, with potential matchups and players to watch.
The first test for Saleh and his new defense is Friday at the Kansas City Chiefs. They will be facing an offense that’s led by the Alex Smith-Tyreek Hill connection. Reports coming out of Kansas City, are that Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill have developed some excellent chemistry during training camp. While Smith has been looking like his serviceable self, he’s been struggling in the red zone in recent practices. Tyler Bray is being listed as their #2 quarterback. However, he’s been having issues with timing and his accuracy from mid to long range has been spotty. Patrick Mahomes will be the third quarterback the 49ers will see on Friday. Mahomes has been showing that he is a rookie making some questionable throws during camp, though he has had his fair share of big plays as well. 49ers young secondary might have their work cut out for them when Mahomes enters the game. Look for Alex Smith to play all of the first quarter; Tyler Bray will have the second, then rookie quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joel Stave will likely handle the third and fourth quarters respectively.
Chiefs’ Running Backs
The Chiefs also let go a long time running back, Jamaal Charles, during the offseason. Spencer Ware will be getting the first crack at the starting running back position in Friday’s game. Chiefs have Charcandrick West listed as the number 2 running back on their depth chart. However, he has missed some time due to an ankle injury during training camp and is listed questionable for the game. That leaves third round pick Kareem Hunt and veteran CJ Spiller playing for the number three spot. Hunt has picked up the system a lot quicker than Andy Reid thought he would. CJ Spiller finds himself on the outside looking in. His best chance is to prove he can still play on Special Teams.
Chiefs’ Wide Receivers
Tyreek Hill has taken over the number one wide receiver role since the Chiefs released Jeremy Maclin on June 2nd, but the wide receivers behind Hill aren’t exactly keeping opposing secondaries up at night. He’s accompanied by veteran Albert Wilson, 3rd-year veteran Chris Conley, and running back turned wide receiver, DeAnthony Thomas. Chris Conley is the only wide receiver with size. The rest of the wide receiver core is a bunch of relatively unknown small quick receivers that can turn a 5-yard slant into an 80-yard touchdown. 49ers long lengthy corners could have their fair share of problems through out the night.
Chiefs’ Tight Ends
Travis Kelce has missed five practices due to a knee injury. So I wouldn’t expect Kelce to play Friday night. After Kelce, Chiefs don’t really have another threat at tight end that would scare defenses. Demetrius Harris and Gavin Escobar are battling for the second tight end spot behind Kelce. Look for those two to get the most snaps during Friday’s game.
Chiefs’ Offensive Line
The Chiefs offensive line is relatively young but protected Alex Smith well last season only surrendering 28 sacks all season. Going into the 2017 season, PFF ranked them as the 15th best offensive line. They are a middle of the pack O-line who love to run the ball. They could prove to be a great test for the 49ers improved defensive line.
There are a lot of unknowns with this new defense and with being able to see them play an actual game finally. There are two matchups that should garner extra attention this Friday night.
Rashard Robinson vs. Tyreek Hill
2017 could be a big year for the former 4th round pick out of LSU. Tramaine Brock, who was the number one corner last year, was released by the team on April 7th for domestic violence allegations. That situation has caused Rashard Robinson to take over the role of top cornerback for the defense. The first test for Robinson will be up and coming wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Hill blasted onto the scene last year for the Chiefs. Catching 61 of 83 targets for 593 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Hill also added 24 rushing attempts for 267 yards and three touchdowns. Hill is the ultimate dual threat offensive weapon. Early in camp, there were reports Robinson was struggling with the shorter/quicker wide receivers in practice. So this Friday will be an excellent opportunity to show that he can hang with the smaller wide receivers of the NFL. Robinson showed good things in his rookie year. According to PFF, Rashard Robinson’s 13.2 coverage snaps per reception ranked No. 1 among rookie cornerbacks with at least 250 snaps in coverage. Now it’s up to Robinson to prove he can build off his solid rookie season.
Matchup #2: 49ers’ Defensive Line vs Chiefs’ Offensive Line
In 2016, as we all know by now, the 49ers run defense was the worst in the league. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan did a great job trying to immediately bolster the defensive line, adding players like Earl Mitchell, Elvis Dumervil, and 3rd overall pick Solomon Thomas to solidify the position group. Saleh has said there will be a lot of rotating on the defensive line to keep players from getting tired and giving them the best chance to stay healthy. Since Alex Smith and the starters will most likely be playing all of the first quarter, Friday should be a good test for the 49ers’ defensive line.
The starting D-line is as follows: RDE Tank Carradine, RDT DeForest Buckner, LDT Earl Mitchell, LDE Arik Armstead. That starting unit will have a real test this Friday facing a top 15 offensive line that is only getting better. Reports out of 49ers camp are saying Arik Armstead has been making noise at his new LEO position and had looked good almost every practice. He will be going against the Chiefs’ starting left tackle, Eric Fisher. After a rough start to his career, Fisher has turned it around and begun to show he can be a top left tackle in this league. It will be interesting to see how Armstead fairs in his new position.
Saleh’s plan to continuously rotate bodies in will definitely help second year pro Buckner to stay fresh. During Buckner’s rookie season, he was never once taken out of the game and playing fresher should help him maintain both his technique and explosiveness . Earl Mitchell has been a force to be reckoned through all of training camp so far. Solomon Thomas should also be getting a lot of work during the game. Aaron Lynch is now going from a 3-4 OLB to a 4-3 DE which should also suit him much better
3 Players to Watch
This undrafted safety owns the program record with 18 interceptions during his career at St. Francis. He also snagged two interceptions in the NFLPA Game and two more interceptions at the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Size wise, he matches up favourably to Earl Thomas but he is likely a lesser athlete.
However, that hasn’t stopped Jerome from making his presence known heading into the first preseason game. Since Minicamp and OTAs, Jerome has been a ball hawk, recording an interception in almost every practice they have had. Once training camp began, Jimmie Ward went out with a hamstring injury, then Jaquski Tartt went down with a rib injury. This gave Jerome a chance to run with the first team defense and showcase what he can do. Lynch and Shanahan could have very well have found a diamond in the rough. This Friday he will be facing a different team with a different offense. It will be interesting to see if he can keep up his solid play that has been raved about all summer.
In Minicamp, Carradine got the first crack at the strong side defensive end spot. Ever since then he has not relinquished that spot. Out of the starting 4, Carradine is probably the least mentioned player all through training camp.
The former 2nd round pick hasn’t had the greatest career since being drafted. His slow development, or complete lack thereof, would arguably justify him being considered the worst of Trent Baalke’s draft selections. Much of the disappointment could be due to the fact the 49ers selected Tank to play in a defense that didn’t let him live up to his real potential.
However, Carradine seems to have found a role that suits him after an underwhelming start to his NFL career. Tank Carradine will be going against Mitchell Schwartz on Friday night. Schwartz is a six-year pro that has yet to miss a start. Schwartz is coming off a strong year, with PFF grading him at 80.9. So now Tank Carradine has found the perfect fit in this scheme. Can he live up to his second round hype that fans have been waiting to see?
During the 2017 NFL Draft, teams had Reuben Foster very high on their respective boards. However, a report surfaced that Foster’s surgically repaired shoulder wasn’t going to hold up. That scared numerous teams away, and Foster fell considerably in the draft. But the 49ers halted his fall, trading back into the first round to get him at pick #31.
Through all of the minicamp and OTAs Foster continued to rehab his shoulder. Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch had hoped all along that he would be ready for training camp and once July 27th rolled around, they got word that Foster would be a full go on the first day of practice. From the beginning of camp, Foster has shown his big play ability, recording four interceptions. Foster has still had his rookie moments of course, whether it be misreading a play or over pursuing but he has shown he will learn from his mistakes and has a knack for making the big plays. The plan with Foster was to have him sit behind players like Navorro Bowman and Malcolm Smith but a season ending injury to Smith may have fast forwarded Foster into the starting lineup. Over the past couple days, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Foster have been battling it out to see who will replace Smith in the starting ‘Will’ position. The even bigger question going into Friday’s game vs. the Chiefs is, can Foster’s shoulder hold up during live action?
Given it’s only the first preseason game, it will be interesting to see how the new look 49ers defense starts their 2017 campaign under Robert Saleh. This defense has a lot of talent to become good quickly. Now it’s up to the players to make that happen.