Saturday’s defeat against the Texans was the first 49ers game that Jimmy Garoppolo participated in that the 49ers have lost. Over the course of the narrow defeat in Houston, the 49ers showed many of the warts you would expect in preseason, and a few areas of probable weakness this season reared their heads. Nevertheless, there were also many pleasing aspects of Saturday’s game, things the Niners will look to continue to build on moving forward this season.

  • The first team offense’s drives were a clinic in play calling by Shanahan, as he expertly exploited the Texans’ cover 4 on early downs and their man coverage on later downs. The 49ers’ offense marched down the field on two occasions, with the first ending in a touchdown by Trent Taylor, and the second only being halted by two Weston Richburg penalties and a Dante Pettis drop that led to an interception. Shanahan put a lot of stress on the Texans’ linebackers in order to stay ahead of the chains – a key part of his continued success as a play caller – as well as understanding the strengths of his receivers when facing man coverage.

 

  • Conversely, the first team defense found themselves out-schemed on their first drive. The Texans engineered favourable match-ups by calling empty sets out of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends along with two receivers) to keep the 49ers in their base defense. From there, they got receivers matched up with safeties and linebackers.

 

  • Eli Harold has an immensely difficult job. He performs well in his run defending responsibilities at the SAM spot, where he uses his strength, length and experience as a 3-4 OLB to good effect. However, his additional size and lack of experience as a cover player show up when he is asked to drop into coverage – teams will attack his area of the field, especially after a play action pass. The Texans employed that tactic to good effect on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how many other teams employ it moving forward.

 

  • On the Texans’ first touchdown, significant miscommunication and confusion led to Bruce Ellington essentially being uncovered in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. I am told part of this confusion came because the 49ers were in their base defense rather than nickel, and it is clear the alignment of the Texans’ receivers, confusion about who was responsible for what and the amount of space on the field side of the formation all compounded the 49ers’ problems on this play. This was the time to make those mistakes – now they will be fixed. (The below tweet is the start of the tweets explaining this play more in depth)

 

  • Jimmie Ward also had another tough day at corner. Lacking the length of his peers on the outside, Ward appears to be really struggling with the upfield shoulder technique the 49ers want from their corners. Given the Niners’ reluctance to bring Eric Reid in as a backup for anything higher than the veteran minimum, you have to wonder if Ward feels his seat getting a little hot.
  • The 49ers’ pass rush had some near misses, but that’s patently not good enough when front line edge rushers are going against second and even third stringers. The 49ers might have a new edge rush plan that seems to involve the edge players trying to keep the QB in the pocket and force him to step up, as well as more stunts to constrict the pocket, but that plan has so far led to little pressure. In fairness though, the 49ers were missing their three premier interior pass rushers.
  • Despite their early issues however, the 49ers’ defense could take solace from a few extremely promising performances from their younger players. D.J. Jones stood out in the middle of the defense – he should be putting pressure on Earl Mitchell for the starting spot at nose tackle now he has had a year to adjust to NFL quality. Youthful corners Tarvarius Moore, Greg Mabin and Emmanuel Moseley all did themselves no harm against the Texans either – with the former two surely pressing for first team reps with Richard Sherman unlikely to play too long against Indianapolis and Ward really struggling. Fred Warner also impressed in his first game action.
  • On the offensive side of the ball, the running back battle didn’t get any clearer, though Joe Williams’ injury could well impact his chances in the race for the third spot more than anything Jeremy McNichols did on game day. Both backs, as well as Raheem Mostert, showed a willingness to get physical, but all showed questionable vision that might allow Alfred Morris to impose himself as a late, reliable entrant to the competition.
  • Finally, Joshua Garnett got his first snaps for a year against the Texans and looked acceptable. He was moving well, and looked effective in the running game in particular, as he regularly sealed off his man and got to the second level. His pass blocking was sufficient, but was still his weaker area and it remains to be seen if he can anchor against the bull rush. Garnett must get first team snaps this week – the reality is the 49ers know who Mike Person is, they really have no idea who this new slimline Garnett is. That needs to change.