© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers lost their third 2018 preseason game, 23-17, in Indianapolis Saturday, putting them ttat 1-2 on the preseason. What took precedence, however, is how the starters played in extended time, how several key players fared in their returns from injuries, and how backups fighting for roster spots performed.
Let’s review the positives and negatives.
Saturday was Morris’ first game action of the 2018 preseason. The 49ers signed him early last week, and though he practiced twice in Houston, he did not play last Saturday.
Morris revitalized a lifeless rushing attack, compiling 17 carries for 84 yards Saturday. He converted three first downs in 3rd and 1 situations, plunging forward through contact for positive yardage. He was patient, allowing for holes to open, and nimble, showing little signs of physical regression in his seventh NFL season.
The 49ers have searched for their No. 3 running back behind Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida throughout the preseason. Prior to Saturday, none of San Francisco’s candidates — including Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols, Joe Williams, and rookie Jeff Wilson— had taken a stranglehold on the job like Morris did Saturday. Mostert adds more special teams value than Morris, but he’s clearly the better runner. His patience is something Williams and the other young 49ers running backs have not shown.
The run blocking tremendously improved from the first two games. Morris consistently had holes to run through, an encouraging for an offensive line in progress.
The 49ers could keep four running backs depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out. Regardless, Morris made a very strong case for inclusion in the 53-man roster. At this point, it would be surprising if he didn’t make it.
Less is more with cornerbacks, and Richard Sherman did what he did throughout seven dominant seasons with Seattle: erase whomever lines up against him. Sherman was targeted just once in the first half, resulting in an incompletion. He broke quickly on the slant and swatted the pass away.
Richard Sherman broke up his lone target in the first half pic.twitter.com/Trv6J4OraD
— Brad Almquist (@bradalmquist13) August 25, 2018
The Colts avoided Sherman’s side throughout the first half, instead targeting opposing cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. He had a pass breakup but missed a tackle on a 19-yard completion and also committed a pass interference penalty.
With Jimmie Ward, the only 49ers backup with extensive NFL experience, injuring his quad Saturday, the severity of which is currently unknown, Sherman’s importance can not be overstated enough. He did not look slow or hobbled by either the Achilles rupture he suffered last November or hamstring injury he suffered two weeks ago.
The first-team defense struggled in the first two preseason games. Both the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans yielded scoring drives on the opening possessions.
Saturday was a step in the right direction.
The 49ers forced a three-and-out on the first drive. After a four-yard gain on first down, Fred Warner blew up a run for a three-yard loss on second down, and Jeremiah Attaochu sacked Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to force a punt.
The 49ers’ starting defense allowed just seven points in one half, which equated to five Indianapolis drives, and allowed 156 yards altogether. The first three drives ended in punts.
What helped enable that improvement was the returns of several key players: Sherman, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, and K’Waun Williams. Each of them made plays. Armstead and Thomas consistently penetrated the backfield, Williams blew up a run play for a loss, and Sherman, as noted above, blanketed his side of the field.
In terms of talent, the 49ers receiving corps is the deepest it has been in years, but drops have recently become an issue. Last week, Dante Pettis dropped a ball that was slightly overthrown, and the Cowboys gathered the interception. On Saturday, the 49ers’ starters dropped five of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes, three of which came near the goal-line.
On their second drive, the 49ers moved the ball to the Colts’ six-yard line. On third down, Garrett Celek dropped a would-be first down. The 49ers went for it on fourth down, and Kendrick Bourne couldn’t haul in a dart from Garoppolo over the middle.
On the following drive, Garoppolo threw a strike to tight end Cole Hikutini in the end zone. Hikutini dropped the pass, which would have resulted in a touchdown had he held on.
Red zone offense
The drops played an important role in derailing the success of San Francisco’s red zone offense. Garoppolo completed just one of seven passes in the red zone. He finished 9-19 with 137 yards altogether. Two of those throws were nearly intercepted, but the Colts defenders could not hold onto catchable balls.
During San Francisco’s third offensive drive, Pierre Garcon was penalized for holding on second and five with the ball on the Colts’ 12-yard line. The 49ers backtracked into a second-and-12 situation, which yielded an incompletion, then another on third down. The 49ers settled for a field goal.
The red-zone efficiency was an issue last year, though it improved over the final weeks of the season with Garoppolo leading the way. That ineffiency has resurfaced this preseason. Last week, the 49ers marched into the red zone on their second drive of the game, but Weston Richburg committed two penalties on one play. The following play featured the interception intended for Pettis.
The 49ers’ starting unit scored a touchdown on one of its five red zone trips this preseason. Two of those have yielded field goals, with the other two ending in turnovers.
It’s just the preseason, so there’s no reason to panic, but the 49ers have wasted promising drives largely with mental errors in the red zone.
Finishing pass rushes with sacks
The pass rush looked much better Saturday than it did in the previous two preseason contests. Armstead, Thomas, and DeForest Buckner were forceful. Attaochu was quick and powerful off the line.
But there was little to show for it.
On third down during the opening Indianapolis drive, Thomas pressured Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and Attaochu cleaned it up for a sack. It San Francisco’s only sack of the day. So far this preseason, the 49ers have three sacks, and just one in the past two preseason games.
There were several times in Saturday’s loss that 49ers’ pass rushers were in position to sack the quarterback but didn’t. It cost the them on their final defensive drive of the first half. On third and 13, Ronald Blair bulldozed his way into the backfield, and Armstead swung around to pursue Luck. But Armstead and Blair collided, and Luck scampered up the middle for a 15-yard gain, extending the Colts drive. On the following play, he hit tight end Eric Ebron for a 15-yard touchdown.
Robert Saleh emphasizes pressures more than sacks, but that play was one example where the latter was needed for the 49ers defense to finish the drive.