We hand out two game balls to the San Francisco 49ers from the Niners’ first game of the 2018 NFL Preseason, a 24-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
On Friday’s Locked On 49ers Podcast, host Brian Peacock provided “stock up” and “stock down” analysis for players in key positional competitions — and handed out a pair of game balls — after the San Francisco 49ers’ exciting fourth-quarter comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 of the 2018 NFL Preseason:
QB Nick Mullens
With starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo playing just one drive, and backup QB C.J. Beathard being mostly ineffective, the 49ers turned to their third-string quarterback Nick Mullens to lead the team in a late-game comeback. Mullens brought the 49ers into Dallas territory on his first two drives, but each ended via turnover — the first, a questionable fumble by running back Raheem Mostert, and the second, an interception on a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage.
With eight minutes remaining — and down by two scores — Mullens took the 49ers on an eight play drive, resulting in a short touchdown run by running back Jeremy McNichols. After the 49ers’ defense forced the Cowboys to punt, Mullens was given the ball at the 49ers’ 26-yard line with no timeouts and two minutes left on the clock, needing a touchdown to win.
In hurry-up mode, Mullens led the 49ers down the field with five-straight completions — using some of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s favorite route concepts — before a short pass interference penalty allowed the quarterback to pause and call a play from the huddle. Shanahan dialed up a man-beater route combination, with wide receiver Richie James running a slant pattern behind tight end Ross Dwelley, who motioned across the formation. With a defender in his face, Mullens fired a bullet to James, who caught the pass for the game-winning score.
Aside from the tipped interception, Mullens threw only one incomplete pass in the contest, ending the game with an impressive stat line of 11-for-13 for 141 passing yards — and a come-from-behind win:
WR Richie James
In his first NFL action, James — a Locked on Podcast favorite — looked more like a seasoned veteran than a seventh-round rookie. Along with his game-winning score — which required the wideout to extend his body for the reception, and then maintain possession after taking a big hit from Cowboys safety Tyree Robinson — James showed flashes throughout the contest.
In the 49ers’ opening drive, James played the “Trent Taylor” role from the slot on third down, and caught a difficult pass from Garoppolo to extend the drive. James also showed off his short-area quickness on a 21-yard screen pass from Beathard, and demonstrated his potential value on special teams with a 33-yard kickoff return.
James finished the game with four catches on five targets for 44 yards and a score. James’ Preseason Week 1 performance certainly shook up the 49ers’ wide receiver depth chart; if the rookie continues to play at this level, he is a lock to make San Francisco’s initial 53-man roster:
Check out what Locked On 49ers host Brian Peacock had to say about the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason matchup with the Dallas Cowboys — including “stock up” and “stock down” player analysis — on Friday’s Rapid React podcast:
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
- Ahkello Witherspoon will bounce back
- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney
Podcast for Thursday, September 20
- Guest: Jeff Deeney, 49ers media correspondent for Pro Football Focus
- Injury report
- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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