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Grant Cohn: Too early to worry, but 49ers show they have issues to solve

  • Duke Ihenaeho's makes the tackle as the ball gets away from A.J. Jenkins. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

It's almost impossible to evaluate the 49ers' starters after their first preseason game.

We don't know how much the 49ers game planned for the Broncos – probably not very much. And the starters played just one series. Frank Gore and Justin Smith did not play at all.

That should change next week. Gore should get at least four carries and a couple of passes thrown his direction just to get his feet wet. The starters should play the whole first quarter. And in the third exhibition game, the starters should play the entire first half and the coaches definitely will introduce scouting reports and full game plans.

49ers vs. Broncos Preseason

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Until then, the backups deserve most of the scrutiny.

But before I get to the backups, I have one observation about the starters: They still have serious work to do with their passing game.

The 49ers' offense is dominant when it stays “ahead of the chains” and defenses cannot predict whether Colin Kaepernick is going to pass the ball, hand it off or run it himself. I'm talking first-and-10, second-and-6, third-and-2.

When the 49ers fall behind the chains (second-and-10, third-and-6, third-and-10) due to a bad play or a penalty, the 49ers' offense becomes subpar for at least two reasons:

1. The 49ers do not have a legitimate split end. A.J. Jenkins was supposed to be that player – the 49ers drafted him in the first round last year – but he's mostly passive on the field. Against the Broncos Thursday night, he fumbled the one pass he caught. It was embarrassing. Unless he turns it around fast – and let's face it, he probably won't – the 49ers will have to use a combination of Kyle Williams (sixth-round pick in 2010) and Marlon Moore (undrafted free agent in 2010) at split end. Between the two of them, they have 47 career catches.

2. The 49ers'offensive line struggles in pass protection. They're big guys built to run block. Once running isn't an option, like on third-and-10, the 49ers' big blockers are vulnerable, especially right tackle Anthony Davis. He gave up a team-high 45 QB pressures last season (9 sacks, 5 hits and 31 hurries). Considering how infrequently the 49ers found themselves in pure passing downs last season, that's a high number. Against the Broncos Thursday night, Davis could not handle Von Miller. On second-and-10, Davis committed a false start penalty because it seemed he was worried Miller would beat him around the outside, so Davis jumped back a second too soon. Two plays later on third-and-19, Miller spun around Davis to the inside and forced Kaepernick to roll out of the pocket and throw a pass 7 yards short of the first-down marker.

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