As the preseason draws to a close for the San Francisco 49ers tonight at 10 p.m. ET against the Los Angeles Chargers, here are five things to watch.
I really want to see him level another punt returner. That’s just my limbic system spewing bloodlust. However, the logical part of my brain understands plays like that should be used sparingly.
Since another Wishnowsky tackle might not be in the cards, here are five storylines worth watching in tonight’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers.
No. 5: Depth battle behind Kittle
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan recently said ideally he’d like to have three Goerge Kittle clones; guys with elite ability in the passing game, but who can also block.
If Shanahan had his wish, it would be a defensive coach’s nightmare.
Given the 49ers’ weapons at the position, Ross Dwelley and Kaden Smith are the most Kittle-esque. Both of them have had up and down practices and preseason games, so look for these two to set themselves apart.
No. 4: Backfield situation
Yesterday, it was announced running back Jerick McKinnon suffered another setback in his recovery from last year’s ACL injury, so the investment in the former Viking seems to be crashing.
This is where having depth at the position alleviates any concerns.
Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida are locked as starters, so we won’t be seeing them tonight. Raheem Mostert had a great season last year and productive offseason, so it’s reasonable to believe he’s third in line and not likely to see any action.
Even after Jeff Wilson rise of late, his spot is not guaranteed. Last week, Wison looked dominant in the backfield against the Kansas City Chiefs. He rushed for 45 yards on 12 attempts and scored two touchdowns. Wilson also looked fast, determined, shifty and unrelenting.
After that performance, it’s hard to imagine he could have done anything more to cement his likelihood of making the 53-man roster.
Look for Wilson, Austin Walter, and possibly Brandon Wilds in the trenches tonight.
No. 3: C.J. Beathard’s last stand?
Tonight will be the C.J. Beathard show. Through Week 2 of the preseason, backup QBs Nick Mullens and Beathard looked pretty even, but Mullens found another gear and pulled away in the backup battle when playing against the Chiefs.
In that game, Mullens threw 8 of 11 with 84 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. He had command of the offense and protected the Niners lead. Beathard was an afterthought.
That’s why it all comes down to tonight for Beathard. He’ll need to go out there and show what he’s got in spite of the pressure. If Beathard plays like he played last season, then the decision is clearly made and he’ll be on his way to a new home.
But if he plays as he did in Week 2 against Denver this preseason, then Shanahan will have a tough decision to make.
Tonight’s game against the San Diego Chargers will be the perfect proving ground. Can he perform consistently despite the pressure?
No. 2: Deebo vs. Dante
First of all, no. Wide receiver Dant Pettis will not see any action tonight. Some have taken Shanahan’s criticism of Pettis’ performance this preseason as an indication that his job could be in peril.
Make no mistake: this is Pettis’ job to lose. He’s still the guy.
It’s about finding the right role for him. As far as receivers go, Pettis is like a Gerber multi-purpose tool. In a presser earlier this week, Shanahan said this:
"When you got a guy like Dante it can be a compliment too, he’s a guy who’s capable of having any role on this team…he has the ability…he just hasn’t shown it consistently. I’m hard on people I believe in."
Consistency. There’s that word again. Shanahan loves that from his players. When pressed about Pettis’ chances of losing his job, he added:
"Dante is not in jeopardy in not making the team or anything, but we’re still trying to find a role for him."
Going into Week 1, it sounds like Pettis is still the No. 1 guy. However, Deebo Samuel could entirely change the script for next season. It’s been happening throughout the preseason, but it could really take off as early as tonight.
Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd are not playing, so those absences will leave plenty of reps open for Samuel. Unfortunately, he’ll have to fight off Kendrick Bourne, Richie James Jr. and veteran Jordan Matthews.
No. 1: Robert Saleh’s “Exotic” Defense
Remember this play from Week 3 of the preseason against the Chiefs?
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh took a lot of hits on Twitter about this. In a conference earlier this week, Saleh admitted they were trying new things.
"What, you guys don’t like [DL] Solomon [Thomas] on a running back?!"
The crowd chuckled, but can we expect more of this going forward? Added Saleh:
"When you’re trying to bring overlaods [5 or 6] somebody has to account for the back and usually it’s going to be a defensive end, otherwise you’re rushing 4 all the time or just a simple 5-man pressure that’s not very hard for offenses to pick up, so you’ve got to be able to get creative…on that play [the overall design of it] is not what we want."
So just how creative is Saleh going to get? He gave a standard non-answer:
"[On] first and second down there’s still gonnabe some neuances and all that stuff that teams haven’t seen, but I’d like to think we’re a little bit more exotic than what normal teams who are in our system."
Saleh is obviously playing his cards close to his chest, but it seems like this is all pointing toward giving adversaries different looks in setup and execution.
Whether or not any of this works, or to what degree it might work, remains to be seen. But we could get another glimpse tonight.
In any case, we won’t have to wait long to find out because 49ers football is back next week! Go Niners!