SANTA CLARA — Two days before the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys, head coach Kyle Shanahan railed against the number of preseason games.
“You absolutely don’t need four,” he said. “I’d rather have zero than four.”
After the 49ers had an NFL-leading $40.4 million in 49ers salary on various injured lists last season, Shanahan had 28 of his regular contributors sit on Saturday, including receiver Trent Taylor, who had an unexpected surgery just 24 hours earlier. He then saw three more players go down in the first quarter alone, but with a pair of impressive debuts from rookie receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, and a goal-line stand in the final minute, San Francisco won 17-9.
“I just pray to God they don’t [go for two],” Shanahan said of the Cowboys possibly scoring and tying the game. “I pray to God I’m never in that situation. I saw Bruce Arians was in it yesterday. That’s a tough one to be in. You’ve got to go for two. You can’t try and not to win, but you don’t want to go to overtime at all.”
Before Antone Exum broke up a would-be touchdown pass with 40 seconds left in regulation, and D.J. Reed added one 20 seconds later at the goal line, it was a real possibility, and one Shanahan didn’t relish, given the depth he’d already had to plum.
With top two tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley sitting, swing tackle Shon Coleman — who sat last year with injury after being acquired from the Cleveland Browns — looked to badly injure his right ankle on the fourth snap.
On the next series, running back Raheem Mostert went down with a concussion, and later in the quarter, nose tackle DJ Jones was knocked out with a knee injury. Taylor — slowed by a back injury last year — was going to sit anyway, but on Friday, had a pin inserted into a fractured bone in his foot.
Even with those handicaps, San Francisco’s offense did have several reassuring moments.
Taking every snap of the first half with Garoppolo being bubble wrapped, Nick Mullens continued largely what he’d done in his surprise 2018 rookie season, going 11-of-17 for 105 yards, one touchdown and one pick. He took no sacks, but was battered behind a largely-patchwork offensive line, especially after Coleman went down. His one touchdown came on a 20-yard dart to Hurd in the second quarter.
Hurd was a physical terror, bodying up defenders down field and hauling in three catches on five targets for 31 yards and a pair of scores. He plowed into Dallas linebacker Luke Gifford while blocking down field with four minutes to go in the first half, knocking Gifford out of the game.
“I was excited about him,” Shanahan said. “He got a few opportunities and when he did, he capitalized on them.”
Samuel was used in a variety of ways, from catching a first-down, 16-yard out route while sitting on the ground to taking an end-around for 13 yards in the first half, as he did many times in college. He finished with two catches on four targets for 61 yards, including a leaping, 35-yard grab with a minute to go in the third quarter over Dallas linebacker Justin March-Lillard.
That came after Samuel attracted a pass interference call the play before, something that, with the new rules regarding the call, he said he wasn’t looking for. Those two plays set up a four-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard to Hurd with 14:18 left in the game to give San Francisco a 14-9 lead.
The injury to Mostert allowed the 49ers’ two new running backs — Anthony Walter and Brandon Wilds — to get reps. While Wilds was signed on Saturday — and got extra instruction before the game from Robert Turner — Walter stepped in seamlessly, with hard, physical runs up the middle (thanks to some good work by the interior offensive line).
Walter’s physicality, quickness and versatility would seem very much to fall into Shanahan’s running back mold. The rookie out of Rice had 79 catches for 803 yards in his career for the Owls, to go along with 1,744 yards on 345 catches.
He caught five balls on six targets for 32 yards on Saturday, and ran 13 times for 38 yards. On Hurd’s touchdown, Walter threw a hard backside block to keep Mullens clean. Wilds rushed seven times for 29 yards, and caught one ball for four yards.
There was a much bigger gap between Coleman — acquired to be the swing tackle behind McGlinchey and Staley — and his backup, Willie Beavers. Rookie Justin Skule stepped in on the left side and looked good for the rest of the half, despite getting turned around on a Wilds run. Wilds got loose on the right side at the start of the third quarter, but Skule was called for holding. Skule was drafted to develop into the type of swing tackle San Francisco had hoped Coleman would be, but he may not have such a smooth glide path if Coleman’s injury is serious.
While much of the starting defense is either injured or a healthy scratch, the 49ers did hold Dak Prescott and surprisingly-deft backup QB Cooper Rush in check, bowing up and holding the Cowboys to three field goals in the first half. Still, it’s difficult to make any real evaluations given how little of San Francisco’s front-line talent was actually on the field.
They did have a batted pass in the first quarter by Sheldon Day, and a strip sack in the third by Exum, which was recovered by Jamell Garcia-Williams. That play, though, was wiped out by illegal contact by Reed. Undrafted rookie linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair made up for that with a tackle for loss later in the drive on a screen pass to force a Dallas punt.
… With four weeks to go until that regular-season opener at Tampa Bay, three running backs are now injured — Jerick McKinnon (may start the season on IR), Mostert and Jeff Wilson — along with Taylor, three offensive linemen in Coleman, Joshua Garnett (toe) and Weston Richburg (left knee), a tight end (Garrett Celek), five defensive linemen (Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and Jones), a linebacker (Malcolm Smith) and two defensive backs (Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams). Garoppolo was held out of the game against Dallas, while safety Jimmie Ward, and pass rusher Kwon Alexander are also being monitored.
… Players not active for Saturday’s game: Alexander, Armstead, Blair, Bosa, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, running back Tevin Coleman, defensive lineman Dee Ford, offensive lineman Ben Garland, Garnett, Garoppolo, receiver Marquise Goodwin, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, McGlinchey, McKinnon, interior lineman Mike Person, cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker Malcolm Smith, Staley, safety Jaquiski Tartt, Taylor, offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson, Verrett, Ward, linebacker Fred Warner, Williams and Wilson.
Shanahan said that he rested so many because he has a better feel for the team, and for the established players.
“We want to take care of a lot of guys too, and with having four of these and we have a few more established starters in certain areas,” Shanahan said. “The most important thing is to get our team the best they can be by Tampa, but we also hope our team can be ready for Tampa. Anytime we have a chance to rest guys and keep them healthy, we’re going to try to do it.”
… Adrian Colbert, who started at free safety to open 2018, was ejected for a 15-yard penalty by replay officials in New York for hitting a defenseless receiver during the third quarter. He was cheered and high-fived by fans as he left the field.
“We’ve just got to learn from it,” Shanahan said. “I saw it live and it did seem like his helmet hit his chest and he led with his helmet which is a penalty. It’s unfortunate he got ejected. I know his intent, it’s a bang-bang play and he’s playing fast and trying to stop them on third down. By no means, is he trying to do that.”
… Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw was active both at the line of scrimmage and on special teams. He made a team-high five stops on the day.
“Yeah, it’s showing up that way in camp too,” Shanahan said. “He always seems to be around the ball in the run game and the pass game. From what I saw, he made a few plays out there and I’m sure I’ll see a little more when I watch the tape, but seemed pretty encouraging how he played tonight.”
… The highest-drafted punter since 2012, Mitch Wishnowsky, had both kickoff and punting duties on Saturday, as predicted. He hit six punts for 297 yards — a 49.5-yard average — with three inside the 20 and a long of 64, and had three kickoffs for 185 total yards.
… Beathard handled all of the third quarter and half of the fourth, going 13-for-17 for 141 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Former Michigan and UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight — who had not gtten any team reps in practice — entered with 6:35 to go in the game. Beathard hit his thumb on a helmet on his last throw, but was going to come out anyway.
Garoppolo will start in the second preseason game next week, giving way to Beathard, before Mullens enters. There is still no separation between Mullens and Beathard for the No. 2 QB spot.
“I thought both of them made some good plays,” Shanahan said. “But I thought both of them, each one of them had one really bad play. I thought they threw a pick that was pretty easy to see. I think (with) Nick, the backside linebacker got it in zone and I think it was C.J., a robber safety came down and got them. After that I thought both of them played pretty well, while under a lot of duress too.”
… Newly-re-signed kicker Robbie Gould hit a 53-yard field goal with 4:47 to go in regulation.