The San Francisco 49ers promise to have an eventful quartet of preseason clashes; here are four reasons why you can’t miss any of the Niners’ preseason action.
“I can’t even watch the preseason.” “The games don’t mean anything.” “The starters barely play.”
You’ve heard it all from the supposed football fanatics who take about 0.3 seconds to thoroughly dismiss the entire preseason.
While it’s true that no one is going to confuse the preseason opener with a high-stakes division clash in Week 15 or an epic postseason tussle, the preseason produces its fair share of excitement, provided you look hard enough.
It’s the calm before the storm. The appetizer before the feast. Heck, it’s the chance to once again simply watch pro football!
1. Men are fighting to play professional football for a living
What’s one of the reasons the NFL is so popular in this country? In a word: drama. Drama on who said what or who’s going to start at quarterback in the lead-up to games, drama on the field in the form of two-minute drives with everything on the line, drama away from the gridiron through Twitter beefs and nightclub shenanigans.
While all those examples put eyes on the product, what’s more dramatic than watching players battle for roster spot? Many of these men are fighting for their livelihood, their dream, the chance to earn a financial payoff for all the hard work they’ve been putting in since Pop Warner.
Niner tie-in: It’s hard to know exactly how the 53-man roster will shake out, but players around the league can help their cause with a stout performance in the preseason, and the Niners are no exception. Take, for example, defensive back Tarvarus McFadden, who went undrafted due in part to a poor 40-yard dash time (4.67) and faces an uphill battle to crack the roster. A ballhawk who picked off eight passes during his sophomore season in 2016, the Florida State product isn’t without tantalizing upside, but McFadden’s NFL future could be on the line during San Francisco’s four preseason tilts. If he doles out a few punishing hits or notches two or three pass breakups, McFadden’s chances to make the Niners (or be signed by another team if he doesn’t stick with the red and gold) will grow by leaps and bounds.
Guys like seventh-round rookie receiver Richie James and embattled third-year guard Josh Garnett are in a similar position as players that could significantly help their stock with strong preseason play.
2. We get to see top free agents and draft picks get their first game action on their new squad
They won’t play for all four quarters, they won’t dive deep into the playbook, and how they performed in the preseason with their new squad will be all but forgotten once the regular season starts, but it’s still a striking image when you witness a big-name player competing in game action with their new team for the first time.
Niner tie-in: Training camp is one thing, but Richard Sherman as a 49er is going to become a very real concept whenever he takes the field rocking the red and gold (he’ll be held out of the preseason opener against Dallas due to hamstring tightness). Ditto for fellow enticing free agent signings Jerick McKinnon and Weston Richburg and top draft picks Mike McGlinchey, Dante Pettis and Fred Warner.
3. We can watch our favorite team without stressing out
We all love football, but let’s be honest: Watching your favorite team in a critical seesaw battle late in the regular season is a grueling, stressful endeavor. And the playoffs? You’ll be lucky if you haven’t lost your voice screaming at the TV by midway through the second quarter.
But the preseason provides a laid back, casual atmosphere for even for the most maniacal of hardcore fans because – as preseason naysayers are so quick to point out – winning and losing doesn’t mean much.
Instead, you’re finally getting a glimpse at your team’s newcomers and mainstays playing together for the first time. You’re impressed with what you’re seeing from that third-year receiver who may finally be primed for a breakout. You’re happy with the strong open-field tackling, but you’d like to see the pass rush put a bit more heat on the quarterback.
Niner tie-in: Embrace the casual atmosphere of San Francisco’s preseason opener against Dallas on Thursday because it won’t be long before you’re living and dying with every play during Week 1’s tough test in Minnesota.
San Francisco started 0-9 last season, so to say it’s important to get off to a good start this year would be an understatement. It won’t be easy, as the first half of the Niners’ schedule is at the Vikings, home against the Lions, at the Chiefs, at the Chargers, home against the Cardinals, at the Packers, home against the Rams and at the Cardinals. Scoring some tough early-season victories will be paramount if the Niners are to fulfill the fans’ prophesy of becoming a playoff team.
4. The preseason separates the real fans from the bandwagon fans
We’re not saying you’re a lousy fan if you don’t park yourself in front of the television for all 16 quarters of your favorite team’s preseason contests. The games air on random nights at seemingly sporadic times, and people have lives away from watching modern-day gladiators slam into each other in full-speed collisions.
But real fans have a knowledge about their team that extends beyond the starting quarterback, the top running back, one receiver and one defensive standout. They want to know their team inside and out, and they want to understand what is expected of each player and what they all went through to be here. And the preseason is your only chance to get a good, long look at the roster from top to bottom. It’s fun to pick out two or three roster hopefuls and root for them to make a big play, thus increasing their chance to crack the 53.
Injuries are bound to happen in the NFL, and depth charts are certain to fluctuate based on performance, and a real fan is invested in battles for starting gigs and roster spots.
Niner tie-in: Niner Faithful are a passionate bunch, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who claims to be a diehard San Francisco fan who doesn’t have a strong knowledge of the roster. 49ers fans will be watching the preseason with baited breath, hoping that their personal favorite roster longshot turns some heads and sticks with the team into the regular season.
Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston
The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.
Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense
Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.
We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.
While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.
Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.
One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.
Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.
Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.
Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.
Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.
Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller
Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.
Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.
Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.
Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.
Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line
It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.
Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.
With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.
San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise
San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.
Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.
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