Sunday afternoon, the 49ers will play their third preseason game, which football coaches call “the dress rehearsal.” It’s a dry run for the regular season opener. The 49ers will treat this exhibition as if it’s a real game. Coaches will game plan for the Minnesota Vikings, starters will play the entire first half and substitutes will enter the game for specific plays in specific situations just like during the regular season.
These are five main things you should watch during the 49ers dress rehearsal against the Vikings on Sunday.
1. Substitution patterns. This Sunday, we should see exactly how the coaches plan to use their players during the regular season and whom the coaches plan to feature Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers.
On offense, we will see how the coaches plan to feature their fullback, whom they call an “offensive weapon” — Kyle Juszczyk. We’ll see how they rotate their tight ends. And we’ll see which running back will be the primary change-of-pace back — Tim Hightower, Joe Williams or Matt Breida.
On defense, we’ll see which players will play in the base defense and which will play in the Nickel and Dime defenses. We’ll see which defenders play in short-yardage situations and which play in long-yardage situations. And we’ll see if veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman will play on passing downs, or if he’ll be a run-stopping specialist. More on Bowman below.
On special teams, we’ll see who will be the primary punt returner. We’ll see who will be the primary kick returner. And we’ll see who will be the primary “gunners” on the punting unit — the two players who line up like wide receivers and sprint down the sidelines to tackle the punt returner. The starting gunners probably will make the final roster.
2. NaVorro Bowman. On Thursday, I asked defensive coordinator Robert Saleh if he is committed to playing Bowman on third downs during the regular season, or if Bowman will platoon with third-down pass-coverage specialist Ray Ray Armstrong.
“I don’t want to close out anything,” Saleh said. “We’re going to put on the best 11 players to give us a chance matchup-wise to make sure that we’re in a position to be successful on game day.”
Notice that Saleh gave himself an out. If Bowman struggles in pass coverage, Saleh reserves the right to play someone else. Sunday will be Bowman’s first test. If he gives up a few catches, expect Saleh to platoon Bowman and Armstrong during the regular season.
3. Carlos Hyde. Through the first two preseason games, Carlos Hyde has not performed well in Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme. Hyde has missed holes and failed to pick up yards the offensive line has created for him. He has gained just 26 yards on 10 carries.
But 20 of those rushing yards came on three of Hyde’s final four carries last week against the Denver Broncos — he had a 6-yard gain and two 7-yard gains. Granted, Hyde was rushing against second-string and third-string defenders, but he still executed the runs perfectly. He spotted the openings, made the cuts, “got skinny” as football coaches say, knifed his shoulder sideways and slithered through the holes.
Is Hyde finally comfortable in the 49ers new offense? Will he find the openings and make the cuts consistently Sunday against the Vikings? Or were those three good runs against the Broncos mere flukes?