SANTA CLARA – The 49ers finally found the end zone in this 2014 preseason, and they finished Sunday afternoon by beating the visiting San Diego Chargers 21-7 at Levi’s Stadium.
So why didn’t it feel like a decisive victory?
Perhaps because the 49ers’ first-teamers (for the most part) were outgained by the Chargers’ first-teamers (for the most part), 121 yards to 69 yards, and were outscored 7-3. And because the starting offense, led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, still has not scored a touchdown this year. And because two weeks before the start of the regular season, the offensive line looks ragged. And because San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers completed 90 percent of his passes.
OK, let’s give the Niners their due. They won this game, and they did some good things to seal that achievement.
“It feels great to get a win,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit. But like I said, I like to stay optimistic about everything. And I think we have a pretty good chance.”
Backup 49ers running back Carlos Hyde looked sharp, especially on a 20-yard burst in the second quarter. Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a target of derision after the first two weeks of the preseason, was much more effective against the Chargers; he completed 7 of 11 passes for 66 yards and capped a long drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Vance McDonald. The first-team defense stopped the Chargers on a fourth-and-1 play from the San Francisco 5-yard line, and the defensive reserves were consistently stout. Plus, kicker Phil Dawson nailed both of his field-goal attempts after going 0 for 2 against the Broncos a week earlier.
McDonald’s touchdown gave the 49ers a 10-7 lead just before halftime, and they padded it to 13-7 on Dawson’s 28-yard kick at the start of the fourth quarter. Rookie Glenn Winston scored on a 27-yard run with 10:34 to play, and the Niners added a 2-point conversion on Josh Johnson’s pass to Lance Lewis.
The defense snuffed out the Chargers’ final thrust inside of the 2-minute warning when cornerback Darryl Morris intercepted a pass by San Diego backup quarterback Brad Sorensen.
But this being the third preseason game – the one in which the starters tend to see more extensive action – most of the attention was on the first units. And those units were decidedly meh.
Rivers carved up the 49ers secondary a bit – particularly strong safety Craig Dahl, who was filling in for the injured Antoine Bethea (concussion) – and the tackling was inconsistent. Linebacker Aldon Smith let a couple Chargers squirm away.
Most troubling by far, though, was the performance of the Niners’ offensive line. Considered one of the team’s strengths over the past couple years, the front wall seems to be in desperate need of patching.
That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider that untested Daniel Kilgore has taken over at center, castoff Jonathan Martin is playing in place of injured Anthony Davis at right tackle and young Joe Looney is manning right guard instead of Alex Boone, who is holding out in a contract dispute.
But the 49ers’ troubles didn’t necessarily come at those spots. It was the left side of the line that did most of the leaking Sunday. Left guard Mike Iupati, a Pro Bowl pick the past two seasons, was thoroughly abused by the Chargers.