SANTA CLARA — After an eventful summer of marquee offseason signings and growing buzz surrounding a much-anticipated 2018 season, NFL football returned to Levi’s Stadium Thursday night. Building rapport, establishing real-football reps, and giving the backups an opportunity to fight for a roster spot rendered this preseason opener as meaningful.
Ultimately, the Niners prevailed, 24-21, on a Nick Mullens-led two-minute drill. Seventh-rounder Richie James, who logged four catches and 46 yards on the night, caught a seven-yard touchdown to give the Niners the lead with 18 seconds left. A successful two-point conversion effectively sealed the win.
But the real story, which could have legitimate implications for the regular season, is the onslaught of injuries the 49ers suffered throughout the opening four drives.
First, middle linebacker Malcolm Smith exited the game with a hamstring injury. On the ensuing possession, tight end George Kittle crashed to the ground on a pass over the middle, holding his right arm in a stationary position as he jogged to the sideline. He later walked to the locker room. Shortly after, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas injured his head and crashed to the ground, where he lay for several minutes before being escorted to the locker room. One possession later, running back Matt Breida was hurt on a block. Then left tackle Gary Gilliam injured his head and left the game.
That’s five injuries in the opening 15:07 of the game. All five players, except Breida, walked to the locker room and did not return. There have been no reports indicating the severity of the injuries by game’s end.
As for the game itself, whose result took a backseat to the injuries, the 49ers were outplayed.
Both first-team offenses played one drive. The Cowboys scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, while the 49ers yielded two first downs but no points.
The Cowboys picked up two third-down completions to prolong their opening drive, including a 12-yard Dak Prescott scamper up the middle on a third-and-long situation. The drive was capped with a 30-yard passing touchdown to wide receiver Michael Gallup up the sideline. Jimmie Ward ran alongside Gallup but halted his steps as he turned his head, leaving Gallup running free. He snagged the touchdown before 49ers free safety Adrian Colbert could help over the top. Ward started in place of Richard Sherman, who continues to nurse a hamstring injury.
Garoppolo and the 49ers offense moved the ball but did not score. On 3rd and 8, Garoppolo rolled to his right and found James for an eight-yard completion to move the chains. Three plays later, on 3rd and 10, Garoppolo stood in the pocket, withstood a hit, and delivered an 18-yard strike to Marquise Goodwin for a first down.
But Jerick McKinnon subsequently rushed for a six-yard loss, and the 49ers couldn’t make up the lost yardage. They later punted. That was the last of Garoppolo and company for the night.
The Cowboys later extended their lead to 14-0 with a 10-play, 73-yard drive that resulted in a one-yard Bo Scarbrough rushing touchdown. They cashed in on three short throws that were poorly defended, which combined for 45 yards on the drive.
The 49ers responded with a 10-play, 85-yard drive via C.J. Beathard and the second-team offense. Beathard found tight end Cole Hikutini over the middle for an 18-yard gain. On the next play, Richie James caught a short pass, made a defender miss, and turned upfield for 18 yards. Joe Williams capped the drive by plunging forward for a one-yard touchdown to narrow Dallas’ lead to 14-7.
At the end of the opening half, James and defensive tackle Jullian Taylor, the team’s seventh-round picks, were the standouts. James had two catches for 30 yards and notably ran with the first-team offense. Taylor was disruptive at the big end spot, which the injured Arik Armstead typically occupies, nearly yielding a sack and altering a couple incompletions. Taylor later logged a sack late in the fourth quarter.
The Niners opened the second half with a solid drive, accentuated with a 53-yard bomb to Pettis, who has had an outstanding training camp. But they settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 14-10.
The scoring would not resume until the fourth quarter. The Cowboys orchestrated a 10-play, 75-yard drive. Much of the damage was done through the air, with the 49ers linebackers struggling in pass coverage.
The 49ers later responded with a touchdown drive of their own. Victor Bolden logged two catches for 35 yards, using his speed to gain separation. Running back Jeremy McNichols capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown. An successful two-point conversion left the score at 21-16.
The Niners had one more shot, with two minutes left and the ball on their 22-yard line. Nick Mullens completed five straight passes to put the 49ers in the red zone. Bolden drew a pass interference. James ran slant, and Mullens found him for a seven-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left. That was the game.