By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan called Saturday’s preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. Aside from the running game — which exploded in a 23-17 loss — here are some takeaways from preseason game No. 3:
Alfred Morris is just what the doctor ordered.
Newly-acquired running back Morris was by far the most impressive 49er Saturday afternoon. Taking the majority of snaps at half back, Morris was able to provide a spark to San Francisco’s run game that has been noticeably absent this preseason.
During the first two weeks, the 49ers have run for 178 yards on 53 carries over two exhibition games — 3.4 yards per rush.
Morris, however, was able to convert 17 rushing attempts into 87 yards on the ground — 4.9 yards per carry. With tentative starter Jerick McKinnon and backup Matt Breida both likely to be sidelined until the start of the regular season, he could be San Francisco’s most productive option.
What sets Morris apart from his counterparts is his ability to run down hill. Standing at 5-foot-11 and weighing 222 pounds, Morris is able to hit holes hard while lowering his center of gravity and finish runs after the initial point of contact.
Realistically, Morris should have eclipsed the 100-yard mark Saturday but for holding and illegal formation penalties, which nullified runs of 17 and seven yards in the first half.
Based on Morris’ reputation as a reliable ball carrier and his history with Shanahan in Washington, he should be a lock to make the 53-man roster.
Red zone offense was disappointing
For as strong as Morris looked in the run game, the 49ers offense wasn’t nearly as sharp in the red zone.
In three trips, they came up with a total of only six points with their first-team offense. To make matters worse, starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was an abysmal 0-for-5 inside of 20 yards. Garoppolo finished with a 47 percent completion percentage (9-for-19) for 135 yards.
To be fair, not all of Garoppolo’s incompletions were the result of poorly thrown balls. Three passes were flat-out dropped by 49ers receivers, including, most notably, a 19-yard would-be touchdown pass thrown to tight end Cole Hikutini.
The other two incompletions were a product of bad ball placement and should have resulted in at least one interception near the goal line. Colts defenders were able to pick up on the 49ers tendency to target wide receiver Trent Taylor in third-down situations and almost came up with a few picks as a result.
Run defense could be a strength for the 49ers
San Francisco was quite stingy facing the run Saturday, holding the Colts to only 83 yards on 30 carries for the night.
As a whole, the entire first-team 49ers defense proved formidable against the run, only allowing five yards on the ground in the first three possessions against Indianapolis’ starting offense, led by Andrew Luck.
The former Stanford quarterback finished as the Colt’s leading rusher with 27 yards on four carries, but most of his damage was done after 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh pulled the starting defensive line after the first quarter.
It wasn’t only the defensive line that showed up to stop the run. San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon each had tackles for loss in the first quarter to stifle Indy’s ground game.
Going back to Luck, the one area the 49ers will look to improve on, concerning their run defense, will be that of containing opposing quarterbacks.
Although the 49ers’ front seven was able to collapse the pocket, San Francisco’s defensive linemen and linebackers came up short bringing Luck down, which led to several scrambles for first downs.
Fred Warner looks ready to start in Week 1
Reuben Foster will be ineligible to play at the beginning of the regular season thanks to a two-week suspension. In his place, San Francisco will be sending out rookie inside linebacker Fred Warner to fill the role at the WILL linebacker.
Warner took his first snaps with the starting defensive unit and looked surprisingly comfortable at the position. Showing up big against the run, Warner led the team with five tackles (three solo) and one tackle for loss.
Dropping back in coverage, Warner gave up no completions and kept up well with receivers and tight ends over the middle.
Warner will likely see more reps next week in the final preseason game of the year, considering his rookie status, but as of now, he looks ready to start Week 1 against Minnesota.
Mike Person played well enough to land the starting job at right guard
Shanahan elected to go with Mike Person at right guard Saturday and the results were more than promising.
On San Francisco’s first three drives, with Person on the line, the 49ers averaged over 7.5 yards per rush and gave up zero sacks against the Indianapolis pass rush.
Former first-round pick Joshua Garnett did come in midway through the second quarter, but gave up a sack and was called for holding on the same play.
The competition for the starting job at right guard has been an interesting battle to keep track of since no one has been able to separate themselves, until Saturday. Person may have finally done that.