The 49ers are getting set to play their first game in 221 days, albeit a preseason game, but a game nonetheless. The 49ers will take on the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on Thursday night in the pre-season opener for both teams. The Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, considered by some to be one of the best in the NFL, will provide a good, early, measuring stick for the 49ers’ front seven in general and the pass rush specifically (at least for as long as the starters are in the game). Other than for the pure joy of watching football, what should you look for when watching the game, specifically, when the 49ers are on defense? Here are some things that I will be keeping an eye on:
The Pass Rush, LEO and the “Big End”
The pass rush was a big weakness for the 49ers in 2017, amassing just thirty sacks as a team. Thursday is the first time that the team will get to test drive its new team approach to rushing the passer against a different color helmet. Chris Kiffin was brought in to coach the pass rush and so far in training camp the pass rush has looked to be improved. Jeremiah Attaochu, who was brought in as a free agent from the Chargers, has had some noteworthy practices thus far in camp and he will be worth keeping an eye on Thursday (Attaochu suffered a groin injury over the weekend, but was a full participant in Monday’s practice).
Last year the 49ers spent their third pick in the draft on Solomon Thomas, and the expectation that comes with picking a defensive lineman that high is that he a premier pass-rusher and Thomas has yet to show that ability. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said in his press conference Monday that “When you watch his one-on-ones in pass rush, it’s much improved.” Saleh also added, “He’s winning consistently.” It will be worth watching to see if Thomas can carry his improvements over to the game against the Cowboys.
Rookie seventh round draft choice, Jullian Taylor will also be worth keeping an eye on Thursday as he has been getting reps with the first team at the “big end” position with Arik Armstead dealing with an injury. Taylor has impressed the coaches enough to earn first team reps in the last week ahead of players like Ronald Blair. Can Taylor keep up the momentum when the real rubber bullets of the preseason start flying?
There are a lot of storylines to follow in the linebacking corps, but two stand out to me above the others, the debuts of Malcolm Smith and Fred Warner. Smith signed as a free agent prior to the 2017 season but missed the entire season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Smith, who turned 29 in July, is looking to get back to the level of play that earned him a Super Bowl MVP (and a spot in 49er fan’s nightmares with his tip of Kaepernick’s pass to end the NFC Championship game). Smith’s play this season is an underrated factor in the defensive equation, in my opinion. If Smith plays well, the team should see an improvement over Brock Coyle, who had an under the radar decent season in his own right.
Fred Warner, who looks to be the eventual starter alongside Reuben Foster, will be someone to watch on Thursday. The third-round choice out of BYU, known for his coverage skills in college has not disappointed; he has also shown himself to be a willing (perhaps too willing) tackler. Warner has also impressed with his intelligence as well, which, has led the team to give him the responsibility of calling the defensive plays. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how he transitions from the practice field to game situations.
The Defensive Backs
Perhaps more than any position group on the defense, I am looking forward to seeing the defensive backs in game action. Unfortunately, Richard Sherman’s debut will have to wait but there is plenty to keep your interest throughout this game. There are three rookies that I am looking forward to seeing: D.J. Reed, Tarvarius Moore and Tarvarus McFadden.
Reed could possibly get the start at slot corner, with K’Waun Williams recovering from an ankle sprain. Reed has been getting first-team reps at the position with Williams out. Reed has improved throughout camp and made a couple of interceptions. I highlighted Reed as a potential draft steal, in part, because of his versatility and he has been working with the second-team defense at free safety in camp; it will be interesting to see how his reps are split during the game on Thursday. Also of note is whether he will get opportunities to return punts and kicks, an area he excelled at in college.
Moore and McFadden are two of the most intriguing prospects on the 49ers roster. Moore is a rangy athlete (6’2”, 200 pounds) with eye-opening speed (a 4.32 40-yard dash) was selected in the third round, and he is trying to make the transition from safety to cornerback. McFadden has a good college resume (first-team all ACC in 2016 and second-team all ACC in 2017) but went undrafted out of Florida State because of a sub-par time in the 40-yard dash. McFadden has the size that the 49ers covet and they are hoping that his physical tools and play speed can overcome a lack of timed speed just like teammate Richard Sherman. McFadden’s skill set is more suited for game scenarios than those of practice, and it will be well worth watching into the fourth quarter to see McFadden’s first game action.
Be sure and check out The49ersHub.com for everything you need to know before Thursday’s preseason opener and everything you need to know after the game.
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