By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers hit the field for the first time since January in their preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night, and limped out of Levi’s Stadium. A total of six players sustained injuries in their 24-21, comeback win, but there were other takeaways, as well.
1. About all of those injuries
The 49ers coaching staff has worked all training camp to keep their players healthy for the start of the regular season.
Those efforts fell the wayside Thursday night as six players sustained night-ending injuries — five of which in the first quarter and four to starters.
The casualty list: ILB Malcolm Smith (hamstring), DE Solomon Thomas (head), TE George Kittle (shoulder), RB Matt Breida (shoulder), OL Garry Gilliam (head) and OLB Eli Harold (knee).
Smith’s pulled hamstring comes as the latest setback for the former Seattle Seahawk, who missed the entirety of the 2017 season with a torn pectoral.
In regards to Kittle and Breida’s shoulder injuries, Shanahan suggested that both may be of the serious nature and could result in the pair missing “some time.” According to the 49ers, though, neither Kittle nor Breida appear to have structural damage.
Thomas and Gilliam both showed symptoms of concussions according to Shanahan. In Thomas’ case, he fell victim to friendly fire from outside linebacker Cassius Marsh while Gilliam sustained his injury down in the trenches of the offensive line.
Finally, Harold left in the first half after hurting his knee. The severity of the injury is unclear but he was able to walk to the locker room under his own power.
The rash of injuries is undoubtedly discouraging for San Francisco and may have some bearing as to how the team handles the playing of starters in their next three games of the preseason.
Kittle and Breida look to be the biggest losses considering their value offensively. Losing Thomas isn’t good news either as the former first-round pick has looked ready break out in his sophomore season.
Shanahan said in his Friday teleconference that all six should be ready to go come the regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
2. The 49ers might have something with rookie DT Jullian Taylor
The rest of the NFL may regret the fact that they let Taylor fall all the way to the 49ers in the seventh round of the NFL Draft in April.
Taylor has had a strong training camp and was able to transfer that momentum into Thursday’s game against Dallas.
Starting in place of the injured Arik Armstead (hamstring) and playing the entire game, Taylor had three tackles, and a sack in the defensive stand that led to the game-winning drive in the final two minutes of the game.
Throughout the game, Taylor manhandled offensive linemen, including Cowboys offensive guard Kadeem Edwards. With a basic bull-rush technique, Taylor sent Edwards to his backside and got into the Dallas backfield with ease.
“I saw him make a bunch of plays,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’s done a good job for us in camp and it looked like he showed up tonight.”
3. Jimmie Ward had a rough night.
The Cowboys came out swinging on their first drive of the night. They capped a 75-yard drive with a 30-yard touchdown from quarterback Dak Prescott to rookie wideout Michael Gallup, who took advantage of a seemingly clueless Ward in coverage.
“From what I saw, it looked like he just squatted on the routes that weren’t being ran,” said Shanahan. “It was a go route and he slipped by him. It looked like he just stopped his feet and thought something else was coming.”
Ward is transitioning back to playing the role of nickel cornerback after being switched to safety last season. Apparently the flip-flopping nature of his defensive assignments have confused the veteran defensive back, as seen on the blown coverage.
Because of recent injuries to fellow defensive backs Richard Sherman and K’Waun WIlliams, Ward will likely see more playing time at nickelback. This could prove to be a problem if Ward continues to struggle with his adjustment to the position change.
4. Richie James showed up to play
Down 21-16 late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers engineered a 77-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown.
The scoring play came on a seven-yard touchdown pass from third-string quarterback Nick Mullens to rookie slot receiver Richie James Jr., who managed to make a tough catch in traffic between two defenders.
James was able to hold onto the ball and fall into the end zone for six, capping a four-reception, 46-yard performance.
James has seen a lot of time in the slot as Louisiana Tech product Trent Taylor continues to recover from a back surgery that was performed over the offseason. At Middle Tennessee State, James recorded 2,959 yards between 2015 and 2016, but his 2017 season was plagued with injuries, allowing San Francisco to pick him up in the seventh round.
By stepping up in the late goings of Thursday night, James looks to be exceeding the expectations accompanied by a late-round pick.
5. The 49ers offense still has a long way to go.
While the Dallas offense came out hot, the 49ers starting O didn’t look nearly as sharp.
In the only drive that the first-team offense participated in, they were forced to punt after nine plays and only two first downs.
Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo completed only three of the six passes attempted and threw for only 36 yards. The longest pass he completed was an 18-yard strike to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin.
Feature running back Jerick McKinnon had a rough go at things as the former Minnesota Viking was gobbled up in the backfield and registered -4 yards.
“[We’re] just different things that we’re not used to throwing. Just kind of try some new things,” said Garoppolo. “That’s what preseason is for, see what works and see what doesn’t and move on from there.”