The San Francisco 49ers endeared themselves to their home crowd at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, looking like the team of old as a strong ground-game and stout defense lead the way for a 23-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
In fitting fashion, the 49ers ushered in the Jim Tomsula era on the strength of a defensive effort that held the Cowboys scoreless until deep in the fourth quarter.
After welcoming back ILB NaVorro Bowman to the field for the first time in over a year, the 49ers defense went on to force four consecutive three-and-outs to start the game, with Dallas netting minus-5 yards during that stretch.
Bowman needed no grace period after making his return to the field after the 2013 NFC Championship game on Sunday, being involved instantly on the opening play of the game as he stuffed Dallas RB Darren McFadden near the line of scrimmage for a one-yard gain.
Bowman would make his presence known again on third down after picking up a pass to the flat, smothering RB Lance Dunbar for a loss of one. The All-Pro linebacker would finish his day with three tackles, two for losses.
After the game, Bowman spoke about what it meant to return to the field once more
“It felt great. Early on in the warmups I was a little emotional just being back out there and just seeing the fans, it got me going. I missed it.”
Bowman looked sharp both physically and mentally while on the field, and was limited to a strict five-snap limit imposed by Tomsula. While Bowman wasn’t enthusiastic about being pulled from the field, he recognized the coaching staff’s need to ease their star linebacker back into action:
“I wanted to be out there longer. But it’s early in the year. We have a long road ahead of us, and you just wanna be smart with it. But I knew I had five plays so I wanted to make the best of them.”
Starting Dallas QB Tony Romo failed to amass positive yardage against the first-team defense, completing just one pass for minus-1 yards before ending his day. Brandon Weeden fared marginally better, completing 1-of-3 attempts for three yards during his play time.
It was QB Dustin Vaughan who struggled most against an impressive second-team 49ers defense. Vaughan gave the 49ers their first touchdown at Levi’s Stadium of the 2015 preseason after firing a strike to DL Mike Purcell, who rumbled his 303-pound frame for a 37-yard pick-six in the second quarter.
Vaughan looked to atone for his mistake as he took Dallas across midfield for the first time deep in the second quarter. But S Craig Dahl would halt his momentum, jumping WR Lucky Whitehead’s route to pick up the 49ers second interception two drives later.
The showing was a display of defensive depth for the 49ers, whose defensive lines and secondary group stifled any action from the Dallas offense, limiting them to just 73 first-half yards for zero points.
The young cornerbacks Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker continued to impress for San Francisco, as did Purcell, Quinton Dial and Eli Harold up front. Dial and Harold combined for a nine-yard loss of Weeden earlier in the game.
After posting just 16 total yards against Houston last week, the 49ers first-team offense hit the ground running against the Cowboys on Sunday to take their first lead of the preseason.
San Francisco went back to their tried-and-tested method of using the power run to put points on the board, handing the ball to RB Carlos Hyde five times for a total of 27 yards, including a pair of first downs, to get his team into the red zone.
The 49ers usual red zone woes were in full force however, as a rushing attempt, followed by a pair of incomplete passes, stalled their drive short of the goal line. K Phil Dawson would convert the 25-yard attempt to put the first-team offense on the board with a 3-0 lead.
Kaepernick would finish his night after completing 2-of-5 passes for 13 yards, while being sacked once for a 14-yard loss after an ill-advised backwards scramble cost him yardage.
Kaepernick missed his first touchdown of the preseason after a bullet to Smith on a corner route in the end zone went into the new receiver’s hands before being broken up by CB Corey White.
It’s the second time in two games Kaepernick has nearly missed Smith for a potential scoring play. But Kaepernick said after the game he’s not concerned about his ability to mesh with his new weapon:
“It’s been coming along well. In practice we have good reps together. In the game, the plays haven’t taken us to him very much. We had one shot tonight, other than that, we keep working and hopefully we’ll get more reps in the preseason.”
San Francisco used a similar formula of power running to find their second score of the game as well. This time, the charge was led by Blaine Gabbert, Mike Davis and the 49ers second-team offense. Davis used both his hands and his feet to get all 23 yards of offense for the 49ers before being stuffed on a third-and-one inside the red zone.
The loss of yards brought out Dawson, who converted his second straight attempt, this time from 33 yards out, to give his team a 6-0 lead.
The rhythm of the offense would slow down as the Cowboys defensive line began to stall the 49ers attack.
Despite going a perfect 6-for-6, Gabbert could not repeat his points production of last week. When not relying on the feet of Davis to move the ball forward, Gabbert was often chased out of the pocket or sacked, leading to just 21 passing yards on the day before handing the ball over the Dylan Thompson in the third quarter.
Davis and Hyde’s combined 73 yards on the ground were responsible for the offense’s first-half points, though their tasks were made insurmountably easier by the fleet-footed Jarryd Hayne, who terrorized Dallas on punt-returns.
The Australian sensation averaged 28-yards on three punt returns in the first half, shortening the length of the field for the offense while playing a huge role in getting his team into field goal range.
Hayne looked solid as a halfback in the third quarter as well, breaking off a 23-yard run behind a shaky third-team offensive line to move his team into field goal position to take a 16-0 lead.
The newcomer to the NFL ended his night with an impressive 54 yards on eight carries, good for 6.8 yards per carry.
Though Tomsula continued to stem the Hayne mania that is amassing among the national and foreign press, there is no doubt that the Australian’s spectacular play is solidifying himself a roster spot.
But despite a pair of consecutive impress games to start his NFL career, Hayne remains humble and hungry as he fights to be a force for his new team:
“I’m still a long way off from where I want to be. I want to be out there going into games confident that everything I do I’m comfortable with. I’m still learning, it’s only my second game, I’m still very fresh. For me, I’m just taking in as much as I can and wanting to get better everyday.”
Hayne wasn’t the only 49er to continue his ascension up the depth chart Sunday however. A pair of young cornerbacks continue to make the case for a more prominent role in Eric Mangini’s defense.
With Acker and Reaser continuing to impress during the preseason, the 49ers suddenly find themselves with a wealth of depth at the cornerback position.
Both Dontae Johnson and Shareece Wright, who were once projected to possibly start opposite of Tremaine Brock, were bounced to the third-team defense on Sunday. Johnson would still have a strong game for the 49ers, going on to record an interception in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Despite the strong play of Acker and Reaser, Tomsula stated neither are safe in their newfound positions, as the competition amongst the talented group is still determining the depth chart:
“That’s gonna keep changing. We are gonna keep changing things around there. We are sorting through some things. We feel like we have some talented guys back there … I know there’s youth, but we really like the way they’re coming.”
The 49ers special teams showed their best to the coaching staff on Sunday as well, making plays on both sides of the ball. Both Hayne and WR DeAndrew White shined in the return game, looking evasive and explosive in the open field.
But Quinton Patton would make a mark for the return team in another fashion, using his quickness to beat his blocker on a punt attempt by Dallas near the goal line, blocking the try before scooping up the deflection for a touchdown for a 23-0 advantage.
Dallas would score their first and only touchdown later in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late against a 49ers team that flashed potential across their depth chart.
While it’s the often mentioned sentiment that preseason doesn’t matter much, Sunday’s showing should inspire some optimism to the 49ers faithful who have been scorned by the disastrous offseason.