We are headed for the last few days in August and thus the conclusion of the 2018 NFL preseason. The fourth game is when NFL coaches traditionally sit their starters to give them some rest and to get a chance to evaluate the players on the roster bubble outside of practice. For most people, this game is a nuisance; fans, the league, the product American Football. But for the guys fighting for a roster spot, this is pure adrenaline. This game often decides if players make the 53-man roster or not. This game is when back-ups become starters. This game often is the only chance to produce some NFL game tape. This game is their Super Bowl. So, what can we expect on Thursday?
49ers’ Offense vs Chargers’ Defense:
Well, the scheme is still the same, that does not change. Kyle Shanahan is one of the best, if not the best play-caller in the game. So far, the 49ers offense is ranked 1st in yards per game (411.0) and yards per play (6.4). This is starters and backups combined, though most of the starters will stay on the bench to make room for the former.
CJ Beathard will get the start at quarterback. After a shaky first three games he will be eager to end the exhibition period on a strong note, as he completed only 60% of his passes for no touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 74.9 thus far. He will have every chance to lead the offense and to regain some of his confidence. He will likely have surefire NFL talent blocking for him, at least at the RG spot. Shanahan said there is a real possibility that both Joshua Garnett (who missed the first two games due to injury) and Mike Person will see some work in the trenches.
Other than those two, it should be backup time on offense, so here are the most exciting position battles to watch on offense.
WR: Steven Dunbar, Richie James, Aldrick Robinson, Aaron Burbridge, Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden all fight for the last few receiver spots. Depending on whether Shanahan wants to carry six or seven receivers and with Goodwin, Taylor, Garcon and Pettis seemingly having secured a spot already, there is a lot of traffic left for two or three spots. Right now, none of the six players have separated themselves too much to be called safe, though Kendrick Bourne and Richie James look to have a head start based on the game tape they put together.
RB: Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida are locked in to be RB1 and RB2. After those two players the competition, as with the wide reveivers, is wide open for the last roster spot. Jeff Wilson, Alfred Morris, Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols, Joe Williams – they all have the potential to shine in this offense. Again, none of the aforementioned has separated himself from the pack yet, so your guess is as good as mine who it is that earns the last spot. Alfred Morris and Raheem Mostert seem to have the best chance, though. The former has had immense success under Shanahan and the latter is a special teams ace.
On the flip side, here is the cheat sheet for the Chargers defense. They run basically the same system as the 49ers defense. Technically, it is the other way around. The Chargers DC Gus Bradley was the Seahawks defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2012. He started what would become one of the most dominant defenses ever. 49ers DC Robert Saleh studied under him for five years. However, this is not the point. The point is that the Chargers have the blueprint to be a dominant defense. And even though their established starters won’t play, they still have some good players in backup positions. Linebackers Uchenna Nwosu, Kyzir White and Hayes Pullard earned rave reviews, as did DE Isaac Rochell, CB Desmond King and safety Derwin James. My point is, even their unknown guys and rookies will seek to make and impact and certainly have the ability to do so.
This is not to say the 49ers’ offense does not stand a chance. On the contrary. They go up against this scheme everyday in practice, Kyle Shanahan knows it firsthand. Also, the 49ers skill positions have depth. Maybe they lack the elite players, but a lot of the players seem to be above camp body level. There will be tough cuts to make in the near future. I don’t worry about that. My concern is with the offensive line. While the first team offense shined in last weeks game against the Colts, the backups did not quite the same. If the 49ers can open some running lanes and keep Beathard, Nick Mullens and UDFA Jack Heneghan pressure-free, they have all the chance in the world.
49ers’ Defense vs Chargers’ Offense:
This game should be interesting on this side of the ball, as some starting players have a real chance to play in this game. Richard Sherman saw first game action last week in Indianapolis, so he lacks game reps. Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead missed time due to injury as well, so they might play for some early snaps. Reuben Foster will play if he is cleared from his concussion he sustained Saturday, as he is set to miss the first two weeks of the regular season due to a suspension. Not that this was unheard of or that they for sure will play, but it sure is unusual for these many starters to have a chance to play.
If the 49ers want to win, they need all the help they can get. They also need to clean up their penalty issues (which admittedly improved last week) and need to concentrate on the basics like proper tackling technique and gap integrity. Against the Colts the pass rush finally came alive, mainly on the interior, but the 49ers only had one sack to show for it. They need to finish better (the sack came on a play where literally every DL touched the quarterback before he was brought down).
Other than that, look for the competition at strong safety. Currently, there is no real backup plan for if Jaquiski Tartt goes down. Last week Saleh tried out Tyvis Powell there – him and some of the other available guys like Marcell Harris should see some snaps there.
The Chargers offense looks to continue strong as they picked up some steam over the past few weeks. Their offensive line looks solid and Forrest Lamp, last year’s early round draft selection, is set to make a return and show why the Chargers were so high on him. The run game has been impressive as well, as UDFA Detrez Newsome emerged out of nowhere and looks to be another diamond in the rough. Same goes for 2017 UDFA WR Artavis Scott. Heck, even former Jets and Giants QB Geno Smith plays consistently well. Also, OC Ken Whisenhunt bolsters one of the better offensive schemes in the league. This should be a tough matchup and a good test to see who of the 49ers players have a future in the NFL.
By the way, do not forget that both of the Chargers coordinators have head coaching experience in the NFL. They know of the importance of this game for the players who fight for a roster spot. They will have their squad ready to compete. If the 49ers can match up with the Chargers, I have no doubt that the back half of their roster will be one of the better ones in the NFL.