The excitement of having football back is enough to rile fans up no matter the quality of what’s on the field these early weeks of preseason. Good thing, too, because NFL fans sitting down to take in the 49ers-Ravens opener were given only the customary nibble of starter play to go with a heaping helping of the reserves — and the result was some distance short of scintillating.
Of course, the stage this time of year is set out for those needing to prove their worth as potential members of the final 53. To that end, it’s something of a treat for the most engaged fans to witness a segment of the roster take the lead like they’ll almost never do when the real paychecks are flying.
This game gave the Harbaugh brothers a third opportunity to stare across the field at each other, gave us a chance to see what the 49er defense would look like if it were stripped down, and the Baltimore possession advantage came close to producing the ever-desirable preseason running-clock scenario.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Willis, Bowman and Dorsey? Nope. Try Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland and Mike Purcell — that was the triad at the heart of San Francisco’s 3-4 on Thursday night in a sobering look at life without the All-Pro linebacker tandem and last season’s run-stuffing plug on the nose. Purcell logged the longest look of the three, but none of them had games to remember.
The replacement crew along the rest of the front-seven, however, produced a pair of performances worth a mention. As Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were also out of action for one reason or another, a trio of 2013 draftees, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, and Corey Lemonier took on the majority of snaps. Dial, the former fifth-rounder posted the top run defense grade of the bunch (+4.9, thanks largely to a pair of forced fumbles) while Lemonier’s sack and four hurries added to what we’ve already seen from him, suggesting the team should feel confident if they ever found themselves in need of a full-time replacement off the edge.
The 49ers’ efforts to salvage the careers of Blaine Gabbert and Jonathan Martin wobbled out of the gate as the fresh-from-Florida reclamations debuted in disappointing fashion. In the space of 25 snaps, Martin (-3.4) managed a false start, a QB hit surrendered, a flopping try to pull in front of a wide run, and multiple beats that saw his man notch tackles for short gains. Not to be outdone, Gabbert (-3.5) found his way to just three completions and 20 yards on 11 attempts, missing wide, high, or losing grip mid-throw. The lone pass of over 10 yards that didn’t hit the turf wound up in the hands of Baltimore cornerback Asa Jackson as Gabbert insisted on firing into textbook coverage that was sinking under the deep portion of a smash route well before his release.
Remember the state of things just a couple seasons ago when some of the most common 49er-related chatter surrounded the lacking group of pass-catchers their young QB had to work with? Well, fast forward through time spent collecting parts and this group might now be the deepest in the league. We didn’t get to see much of the likely Week 1 stable, but this game did house Stevie Johnson’s first catch as a ‘Niner as well as a few glimpses of what rookie Bruce Ellington brings to the table. Factor those two in as additions to the existing Crabtree-Boldin-Davis offering and the 49ers’ play-calling horizons would seem to be expanding.
Baltimore – Three performances of Note
With 48 runs for 237 yards on the ground, the Ravens took full advantage of San Francisco’s second- and third-shelf defenders for the duration of the contest. Seven different players ran the ball as Baltimore locked down nearly 40 minutes of possession and four starting offensive linemen earned positive grades as run blockers. Leading that group were perennial standout right guard, Marshal Yanda, and the former Buccaneer center, Jeremy Zuttah, both finishing brief nights with +1.1 run-blocking marks on five run plays. It was a nice Baltimore beginning for Zuttah as he tries to improve upon what Gino Gradkowski showed as the Ravens’ center last year while filling the shoes of retired stalwart, Matt Birk. Gradkowski replaced Zuttah and played the next 64 snaps against San Francisco, ending with a +1.0 run-blocking grade of his own.
Slippery Big Man
After only 93 snaps as a rookie, defensive lineman Brandon Williams was given 20 to see what he could do with in the first exhibition of 2014. A Ravens-defense-leading overall +2.8 grade is what resulted. Williams was credited with a hurry and a pair of run stops, one of which was his highlight for the night. At 11:45 of the first quarter with much of San Francisco’s top offensive group on the field and driving with a 3rd-and-1 at the Baltimore 6-yard line, Williams slipped the block of right guard Joe Looney and cut down Jewel Hampton in the backfield to force a field goal attempt. Williams’ quickness was on display there and his reaction showed when he fought through a wham block from fullback Bruce Miller to make another play later in the first.
Joe Flacco was on the field for the Ravens’ opening drive, an 80-yard touchdown march, and looked sharp, completing four of his five attempts for 52 yards (all to the middle of the field), including the only one he tried while under pressure. With Gary Kubiak in town and an improved weapons list in the huddle, Flacco fans have high hopes that last season’s 38th-ranked -12.0 passing grade will prove to be a blip on his timeline. It was a fast fall from the heights of the recent Super Bowl run, can the bounce back be equally severe?
– 75 players between the two teams saw action on offense and another 65 played for the two defenses. SF’s Lemonier took the largest chunk, getting 70 snaps of his own.
– The 49ers gained 71 yards on the ground, but just 17 of those came after contact (a 1.0 YCo average).
– Pernell McPhee lined up all over the Baltimore front and rushed the quarterback 14 times. He led the team by collecting a pair of hits and hurry — though one of the hits was wiped from the record due to his own roughing the passer penalty.
PFF Game Ball
With the winning Ravens lacking a true standout in the contest, San Francisco’s Quinton Dial gets the call for this game ball for his work against the run.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @PFF_Rick