First-game flaws too familiar for 49ers

SANTA CLARA - Is this déjà vu?

It’s mid-August, the 49ers have several injured players and they just committed 18 penalties in a preseason game.

Haven’t we seen this before? Is this Groundhog Day all over again?

They said this season would be different. They said they can make the playoffs. They got new trainers to cut down on injuries. But, they’re beginning to look like the same old 49ers that start slow and injured and immediately put themselves in trouble.

The 49ers won their preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys, and even though most of the 49ers’ starters didn’t play, winning is good. But, afterward, head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t exactly celebrating. He said the penalties were “very frustrating,” and he’ll “look at them very hard.”

Here’s what Shanahan and the 49ers should see when they take stock of their performance against the Cowboys:

1. The 49ers’ biggest setback didn’t happen on the field.

Four 49ers got injured against the Cowboys: Backup offensive tackle Shon Coleman broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle, and will miss the entire season. Backup linebacker Elijah Lee injured his thumb, and will miss two weeks after undergoing surgery. Nose tackle D.J. Jones sprained his knee. And backup running back Raheem Mostert suffered a concussion.

But, news of the most significant injury broke in the announcer’s booth, where general manager John Lynch told a national audience that slot receiver Trent Taylor, who was inactive against the Cowboys, broke his foot during practice and is out indefinitely.

Taylor had surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his pinky toe. “We’re hoping for (Taylor to return) Week 1,” Shanahan explained after the game. “Not counting on it, but hoping. It’s usually a four- to six-week injury, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Losing Taylor for the Sept. 8 season opener would be a major blow to the 49ers, because he is Jimmy Garoppolo’s second-most reliable receiver after tight end George Kittle. In training camp, Taylor has caught 19 of 27 targets from the 49ers’ starting quarterback. Taylor is Garoppolo’s security blanket.

Someone has to step up while Taylor is out.

2. The 49ers’ best wide receiver might be one of two rookies.

Shanahan still hasn’t decided which receiver will start alongside Marquise Goodwin this season.

“I want someone to make this decision easy for us,” Shanahan said Sunday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “I want someone to take the job, and we haven’t had that yet.”

Maybe not. But, against the Cowboys, two rookies made strong cases for taking the job. Jalen Hurd, a third-round pick, caught two touchdown passes in the red zone. And Deebo Samuel, a second-round pick, gained 14 yards running a reverse, drew a 25-yard pass-interference penalty and caught an underthrown deep pass from C.J. Beathard for a 45-yard gain. Had Beathard thrown the ball farther and hit Samuel in stride, Samuel probably would have scored a touchdown. He beat his man by several steps.

Samuel and Hurd have been the 49ers’ best wide receivers other than Taylor since camp started. But neither Samuel nor Hurd has played much with Garoppolo and the rest of the starters. Through 11 camp practices, Samuel has caught three passes from Garoppolo, and Hurd has caught zero. Those two rookies mostly have played with Nick Mullens and the backups.

Hurd and Samuel need playing time with Garoppolo in practice and preseason, and need experience against starting cornerbacks. They faced backups Saturday night.

Will Shanahan increase Hurd and Samuel’s playing time with the starters this week when the 49ers travel to Denver to have joint practices with the Broncos?

“I don’t know yet,” Shanahan said. “I haven’t thought about it.”

Sure, he hasn’t.

3. Dante Pettis has been a disappointment.

When training camp began, Shanahan seemed to think Pettis would win the wide-receiver competition. He received more targets from Garoppolo (22) than any other receiver besides Taylor.

But Pettis caught just eight of Garoppolo’s 22 passes in training camp - 36 percent. Not good. On Saturday, instead of resting along with several other starters, Pettis had to play with all the other 49ers fighting for jobs.

“I wanted (Pettis) to compete,” Shanahan said after the game. “We’re trying to see who our starting receivers are and I wanted to get him a chance to get out there. Dante has a lot of room to grow.”

That’s a euphemism for he needs to improve. The 49ers traded up to take Pettis in the second round of the 2018 draft, partially because he was an excellent punt returner in college. He returned nine punts for touchdowns at Washington - an NCAA record. Against the Cowboys, he returned one punt and lost a yard. He also played 17 snaps on offense and caught zero passes.

Pettis may have allowed Samuel or Hurd to take his starting job.

4. The 49ers defense may have to carry the 49ers offense this season.

Which is strange, because the head coach also is the offensive coordinator.

But the offense has more questions now than before camp started. Aside from Taylor being out indefinitely, the backup offensive tackle is out for the season. The wide receivers are young and unproven. The starting center, Weston Richburg, has missed the entire offseason and could miss Week 1 with a quad injury. The starting running back, Jerick McKinnon, could start the season on I.R. and miss at least the first eight weeks as he still recovers from ACL surgery. And starting quarterback Garoppolo is coming off a torn ACL, too.

The 49ers’ defense has far fewer issues, and may be better than the offense this season. Which means the offense might want to mute itself, be a bit more conservative than last season and stop committing almost two turnovers per week so the defense can win games.

5. Robert Saleh is as smart as Kyle Shanahan, and any developing team needs two very smart coordinators.

Saleh is the 49ers defensive coordinator, and he has the players and creativity to build a dominant defense.

On Saturday, he unveiled all new blitzes which are much more effective than the old blitzes he called the past two seasons.

In the past, Saleh would pair his blitzes with soft zone coverage, which conceded short passes to receivers who ran slant routes over the middle. Quarterbacks would hit these receivers with high-percentage passes for eight- to 10-yard gains. These blitzes didn’t work so well.

Against the Cowboys, Saleh paired his pressure packages with aggressive man-to-man coverage. His cornerbacks jammed the receivers at the line of scrimmage, took away the slant routes and forced them to run deep, which forced the quarterback to make long, low-percentage throws under pressure. Only elite quarterbacks can make these throws consistently.

Imagine how effective these blitzes will be when DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa are on the field.

Saleh knows what he’s doing. And Shanahan knew what he was doing when he hired Saleh.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette