The San Francisco 49ers start their preseason with an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park on Friday. Niner fans will get their first look at the 2012 49ers squad, while Jim Harbaugh and his coaches will get their first chance to evaluate players on field, in live action. Preseason games tend to get overlooked by some fans, however, the first exhibition game is always the most exciting as we finally have football again after six months off! There are plenty of position battles at training camp and storylines with the 49ers, here are five things to watch for tonight:
Minnesota Vikings (0-0) vs. San Francisco 49ers (0-0)
Kickoff: 6:00p.m. (PST)
Alex Smith and the Backup Quarterbacks
All four of the 49ers quarterbacks on the roster have to be longing for a chance to face a different defense other than their own, after getting dominated at much of training camp the past two weeks. And who can blame them? None of the 49ers’ QB’s has overwhelmed coaches at training camp, however, that has more to do with the defense returning all 11 starters and still being dominate like last season.
Harbaugh listed the 49ers QB depth chart for the Vikings game as: Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson, and Scott Tolzien. All are expected to see some form of action during the game.
When Smith is on the field, keep an eye on his poise in the pocket and his decision making. Smith does not need to go out and dazzle the fans, but he cannot have a dud of a game by completing one or two passes to go along with a handful of passing yards. He will most likely be in for two or three offensive series, so he will need to make the best of his time while on the field.
Kaepernick is in a competition battle for the right to be Smith’s backup on the QB depth chart. It was surprising to hear Harbaugh say there is a competition at all, and that it’s close. Mainly, because Kaepernick is the heir apparent to Smith and he has more experienced with the offense entering his second season than Johnson or Tolzien. It will be interesting to see how Kaepernick plays on the first series after he threw five interceptions in four preseason games last year. In his first game on the field last preseason, he was intercepted and fumbled twice, and sacked four times. Kaepernick called the 49ers’ preseason opener a chance “to go out and show everyone I’m a starter in this league.”
Really, the competition for the No. 2 spot is between Kaepernick and Johnson. Both QB’s are running threats, but Kaepernick has the stronger arm and has shown a great ability to throw into tight windows downfield. Should Kaepernick come out and have a good game, Johnson will need to at least match, if not surpass, his performance when he comes in with the second and third string teams.
The Crowded Backfield
Expect lots of running in tonight’s game. One reason is the amount of running backs on the roster, but also because that will be the game plan as Harbaugh slowly unleashes the offense. Frank Gore will probably only be on the field for a few plays, if at all, so in the first preseason game we will see more of Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon. There are other running backs at training camp, but the five mentioned is where Niner fans should focus. With Gore not expected to play much, Hunter will most likely see the most rushes with Jacobs also being throw in the mix. When it comes to Jacobs, it will be interesting to see how Harbaugh uses him in the game. Jacobs will most likely fill the short-yardage role this season, but he will need to show in the preseason he can still be a traditional running back if he wants a bigger role in the running game.
In the two weeks of training camp, James has been used as an all-round running back. He has even been used in short-yardage situations even though he stands in at 5 -9 and weighs 195 pounds. James has been compared to Ravens running back Ray Rice, who is the same height but is around 15 pounds heavier. James has shown in college and in training camp he is good at changing directions, has great speed and play-making abilities. Don’t be surprised if you see James coming in to rest Gore or Hunter at any time in the game and not just third-down situations.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman on LaMichael James,
"He’s a tough, in-between the tackles runner in college, and now it’s a matter of just him adapting to that in the pros. It’s a misconception that just because a guy’s not a big guy he can’t run inside."
Don’t overlook the fullback position in the game as Dixon will get his first action at the position since switching at training camp. Dixon is in a position battle with last season’s starting fullback Bruce Miller and free-agent Rock Cartwright. With so many running backs ahead of Dixon on the depth chart, his performance at fullback in the game could determine if the coaches continue trying him out at the position.
Keep an eye on Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock. All will most likely be backups at cornerback, however, with the 49ers going up against the top-five passing games from 2011, the defense will be in lots of nickel and dime packages. That’s where the play of the three CB’s mentioned will be big for the 49ers this season. Not only that, but with all 11 starters returning on defense this season for the 49ers, teams know they still can’t run on the D and will look to the passing game. Last season the 49ers ranked first in the NFL in rushing defense giving up only 77.3 yards per game and allowed three rushing touchdowns.
Both Culliver and Cox have had excellent training camps to go along with starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. The 49ers defense tonight is not facing a juggernaut passing offense going up against the Vikings, so they should be able to dominate and not give up loads of yards.
Note: Last season teams attempted 579 passes and 353 runs against the 49ers. That translates to being passed on 62% of the time and ran on 38% of the time.
Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree’s First Exhibition Game With 49ers
The drama has been building all offseason and the wait will finally end for Niner fans to see the best wide receiver on the team, in their first preseason game with the 49ers. Yay! But wait, you might be asking is this Randy Moss or Michael Crabtree we are talking about? Well, both!
After missing all 12 of his previous preseason games, Crabtree has been cleared to play and will make his exhibition debut in tonight’s matchup against the Vikings. The receiver returned to practice this past Monday after missing eight practices because of a right calf injury. Crabtree is the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart for the game and should see plenty of action.
Moss will make his debut on the field for the 49ers, however, he will not start the game. Ted Ginn Jr. is listed as the No. 2 receiver tonight, so Niner fans might have to wait a few series before we see Moss in action. The anticipation seeing Moss on the field in Red and Gold for the first time is running high. Moss has a lot to prove and the expectations are high for him even though he was out of football for all of the 2011 season. One reason for the high expectations is his great two weeks of training camp. If one player will make a splash in tonight’s game, it will be Moss.
Oh, and in other wide receiver developments, Harbaugh said Kyle Williams would “most definitely” return punts against the Vikings. Do I need to remind you of the last time Williams returned a punt at Candlestick Park? What will be most interesting is the reaction of the 49ers Faithful when he runs onto field for his first punt return.
Converted Tight Ends
The 49ers offense is already set at tight end with Vernon Davis and Delaine Walker. When it comes to coach Harbaugh though, you can never have enough weapons at one position. See the running back and wide receiver positions. In addition to Davis, Walker and other traditional tight ends at training camp, the 49ers have converted defensive ends Will Tukuafu and Demarcus Dobbs to the position. Both have had good training camps learning the position, but Dobbs is currently the front-runner to become the 49ers No. 3 tight end on the roster. So much so that he changed his number, from 96 to 40, in order to not have to report as an eligible receiver when comes on the field for offense. Dobbs is still practicing at defensive end at training camp which ups his chance of making the final 53-man roster.
Should Dobbs make the final roster, he would be the No. 3 tight end, but would mainly be used a blocking tight end. Still, he is a threat to catch a pass as he has been making plays in the end zone at training camp. We have all seen how offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to catch defenses off-guard by using unsuspecting players as receivers.