If the third preseason game is the most important test for a football team preparing for the regular season, the 49ers emerged from their battle with the Vikings with a passing grade.
Though San Francisco didn’t set the curve in a 32-31 loss to Minnesota on Sunday evening, the 49ers’ starters outplayed the Vikings throughout a first half that should give first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan his confidence back after a week two debacle against Denver.
A 49ers’ offense that committed four first half turnovers in a failed outing against the Broncos last week rebounded on the road with 14 first half points and its most successful drives of the preseason behind solid play from starting quarterback Brian Hoyer.
After throwing a pair of interceptions and losing a fumble last week, Hoyer completed his first nine attempts against the Vikings on Sunday and wound up converting on 12-of-17 attempts for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Hoyer was especially effective on play-action fakes –a staple of Shanahan’s offensive scheme– and opened the game with a 46-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on a play-action play on San Francisco’s first series.
“For me, the experience, this really being my second time with Kyle,” Hoyer told NBC sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya. “I feel like I have a better feel of what he’s looking for when he calls a play, and just the intricacies of the offense.”
On the next series, Hoyer and the 49ers’ drove nearly the length of the field for a 10-play, 88-yard series that resulted in the first unit’s second touchdown of the night. Hoyer capped off the drive with a 24-yard touchdown completion to running back Carlos Hyde, who San Francisco hopes can become a valued part of the team’s passing attack this season.
“It felt good to finally come out and have some sustained drives and score some touchdowns,” Hoyer said.
Though Hyde rushed for just 19 yards on seven carries, Hoyer was so effective through the air on the team’s first two drives that it eased some of the lingering concerns that the 49ers’ lack of a strong run game could limit the offense’s potential.
For as well as the 49ers’ offense played during its first two series, the San Francisco defense was practically just as sharp.
Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster turned in a dominant performance against the Vikings, recording a game-high eight tackles and showcasing the speed and potential that nearly tempted San Francisco general manager John Lynch to pull the trigger on Foster with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft this spring. While the 49ers ultimately traded back into the first round to snag Foster with the 31st pick, his ability to dissect plays and blow up ball carriers
Arik Armstead and Elvis Dumervil both registered early sacks of Vikings’ quarterback Sam Bradford, while strong safety Eric Reid continued to dominate from his new strong safety position in the 49ers’ defense.
Perhaps the only negatives for the 49ers’ starting units aside from the offense’s inability to run the ball with ease were a possible injury to starting left tackle Joe Staley and a failed two-minute drill at the end of the first half that resulted in negative yardage and a punt.
Both the Vikings and the 49ers removed the majority of their starters by the early portion of the third quarter, and that’s when the game began to open up.
Minnesota scored a pair of third quarter touchdowns and added a 58-yard field goal against the 49ers’ second-team defense, while rookie C.J. Beathard engineered two scoring drives as well. The third quarter touchdown San Francisco scored came on an 87-yard screen pass from Beathard to Raheem Mostert who helped his odds of making the 53-man roster by showcasing strong receiving skills out of the backfield.
Mostert also added a four-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that ended a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive that gave the 49ers a lead that Minnesota ultimately eclipsed on the final play of the game and with a two-point conversion.
San Francisco will return to action on Thursday evening for its preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers, but very few of the players who helped the 49ers take control of Sunday’s game in the first half will appear in that contest. Instead, Shanahan and Lynch will give fringe players one final opportunity to earn a place on the team’s 53-man roster before the season begins.