Photo Credit: Jake Hutchinson
The last time the San Francisco 49ers played in front of their own fans at Levi’s Stadium, they were celebrating an NFC Championship victory. That was 566 days ago. A few things have happened since then.
Before today’s practice, it had been 566 days since the 49ers last had fans at Levi’s Stadium, when it looked like this: pic.twitter.com/dgajeoyPDe
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) August 7, 2021
Perhaps the most poignant and simultaneously funny reflection on the return of fans came from Trent Williams. Williams hadn’t played in front of home fans since 2018, having sat out the 2019 season. He said the atmosphere, with an expected roughly 19-20,000 fans in attendance, was like a game and took him by surprise.
“Honestly, it almost scared the shit out of me,” Williams said after practice. “Because I’m just walking out for normal practice, you forget that the fans are there so you walk out, you just hear a thunderous roar. Obviously I was out walking behind Kittle and Bosa. It definitely was one of those benchmarks, I was like, ‘Oh, hold on now.’ I forgot what it feels like to be cheered on.”
And the atmosphere was decidedly different. Defensive players were tackling a little more aggressively — Marcell Harris chief among them — there was a bit more contact in coverage and a little bit of trash talking.
The best example of that last part was Trent Sherfield on corner Tony Fields. Fields tried to contest a deep ball tossed by Nate Sudfeld in deep passing 1-on-1 drills, but Sherfield came down with him against that tight coverage, then got up, keeping his helmet against Fields, letting him know all about it.
It was the most exciting practice yet, but it also disappointed given some of the absences. Javon Kinlaw (maintenance), Arik Armstead (groin) and Samson Ebukam (soreness) were all out, while neither Nick Bosa nor Dee Ford participated in 11-on-11s.
What that meant is that there was no significant gap between the first and second-string defensive lines. But there was a chasmic gap between the first and second-string offensive lines.
That left Trey Lance under pressure all too often, while Jimmy Garoppolo rarely had to break a sweat. By my count, Garoppolo went 15-of-24, while Lance was 9-of-16. I discounted a few completions and incompletions on plays which were effectively dead from would-be sacks, which happened on at least three Lance snaps.
The second-team offensive line was absolutely wretched. The interior was getting split open like a can of beans, and consistently. It was Maurice Hurst — who looks like an absolute gap-splitting legend and steal from the Raiders, who continue to make, er, questionable personnel decisions — and Eddie Yarbrough who were exploding through the middle time after time after time.
If Yarbrough’s name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. Until the 49ers signed Davin Bellamy, Yarbrough looked like the last defensive lineman on the depth chart. He’s mostly played on the interior, but with a lack of depth, he jumped outside into more of the Arik Armstead 3- and 5-technique split. And boy did he thrive there.
He was omnipresent, and I’m not being hyperbolic; he swatted a Trey Lance late dump pass in the backfield, had at least three run stops at or around the line of scrimmage, and added a couple of pressures to his tally, too.
Hurst was just as domineering through the middle, notching at least one certain sack — chuckling and chatting with Trey Lance knowingly after Lance threw the ball away late — along with multiple pressures and a few run stops.
It begs the question as to whether the 49ers would be served well by adding another center. Currently, it’s Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill as first and second on the depth chart. But Brunskill is currently the starting right guard, meaning that Lance’s center, and the effective No. 2, is Jake Brendel, who has been having a brutal go of it. If the 49ers are going to keep running Lance with the twos, it may be worth getting him a semi-competent veteran center, unless the goal is just to put him through the ringer.
For his part, Lance was mostly solid, just without many viable opportunities. He ripped off a few first-down-yardage read-options, and threw absolute darts over the middle to Brandon Aiyuk and to Sherfield on a deep out.
(Here’s one of them — shout out to the fans in attendance, reporters aren’t allowed to film any of this stuff)
BRANDON AIYUK SNAGGED THAT 😯 pic.twitter.com/YcnffWOD2N
— Brad (@Graham_SFN) August 7, 2021
One part of his game which has been quietly impressive is his speed at reading the field and taking what’s available; he made a few smart checkdowns in rhythm when there’s not much available to him.
One of his incompletions was a fantastic pass breakup by Dontae Johnson, who looks like he’s a quietly valuable depth piece at both outside and slot corner, and another was a nice pass breakup by Fields on Mohamed Sanu over the middle.
His final incompletion came on his final pass of the day, when he was running a situational move-the-ball drill with 1:15 on the clock and three timeouts. He hit rookie running back Elijah Mitchell over the middle, but it hit Mitchell in the hands and he dropped it, coughing it up to Marcell Harris, who picked the pass off.
Lance also had a handoff with Mitchell which looked off timing wise; he quickly consulted with Kyle Shanahan, who corrected him on how the handoff should be done. The exchanges with running backs are clearly still shaky, but that should improve with reps.
It was a day when Garoppolo definitely looked like the sharper quarterback, though, again, he also had a clean pocket on just about every play while Lance had an inverse experience.
The most significant part of the day was Garoppolo’s move-the-ball with 1:15 left, which is not to say it was the most impressive. He opened it with a legitimate hospital pass to Raheem Mostert on a short out route; the ball was thrown to Mostert’s left, and into the path of a charging Dre Greenlaw, instead of towards the sideline. In a game situation with full contact, it could’ve been disastrous.
He responded immediately with a beautiful throw over the middle, utilizing a pump fake to freeze Fred Warner, who was sinking back in coverage and who stopped his feet momentarily because of the pump fake; that gave enough room in a triangle of space between Warner, Jimmy Ward over the top, and Tavon Wilson at the other corner of space. Garoppolo had perfect touch on the ball and it got the chains moving. It was his best throw of the day, and extremely savvy.
He had a short pass to Mostert, and then a high throw over the middle to Sanu, who made an outstretched, impressive catch to save Garoppolo. At this point, they’d advanced to the red zone, and Garoppolo’s next throw was another disappointing one. He was given all the time in the world, but instead threw an off-balance, pace-lacking throw which B.W. Webb was able to contest against Aiyuk. If he’d led Aiyuk into the corner of the end zone, it could have been a touchdown.
But Garoppolo found a completion to Kittle to keep the drive alive with a first down which went down to the 2-yard line. They spiked with 14 seconds remaining.
Garoppolo then threw high and behind Sanu, before he capped off the drive with a jump ball to Kittle for a touchdown over rookie corner Deommodore Lenoir. I don’t want to 100 percent say Kittle Moss’d Lenoir without seeing the play again, but he sure as hell bullied the rookie to make the catch. It sure looked like he got Moss’d.
One final from practice is the fact that Jason Verrett looks unquestionably like an All-Pro corner. The 49ers are going to be in serious trouble if they lose him for any stretch this season. He’s been everywhere, keeping everything in front of him when he does allow receptions, and contests nearly every pass within his radius. It’s relentlessly entertaining watching the battles between him and Aiyuk on a day-to-day basis.