The 49ers are heading to Indianapolis to take on the Colts in what most teams consider a dress rehearsal for the season. The third preseason game usually sees the first team offense and defense play most of the first half. It allows the coaches, and fans, to see what they will have on the field this year.
For the 49ers, there are still a few questions marks that need answering. And since the fourth preseason game is usually reserved for backups to make their final case for the 53-man roster, this game is up there in terms of importance.
Does Sherman Still Have It?
For the first time in eight months, cornerback Richard Sherman will be stepping on the football field. The three-time All-Pro suffered an Achilles injury back in November 2017 that saw him miss the latter part of the season. After spending the whole offseason rehabbing his injury, he suffered a hamstring sprain that has kept him out of the preseason until now.
This is a big story not just for the 49ers, but for the entire NFL. Sherman has been the pinnacle of cornerback play since he entered the league in 2011, and all eyes will be on the 30-year old corner to see if he still has it.
There has been some pessimism about his return, with most of his detractors citing his age and the severity of his injury as reasons why he will never be the same. Him getting burned by Marquise Goodwin in his first rep since his injury certainly didn’t help.
It will also be interesting to see if the presence of Sherman helps boost the play of the secondary. Against the Texans last week, the 49ers allowed Deshaun Watson to march down the field and complete 5-of-8 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. With such a young secondary, “Uncle Sherm” will need to lead by example.
Four Running Backs?
The first two running back spots on the depth chart are solidly filled with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida. After that, it gets a little foggy. With Joe Williams out for the rest of the preseason with a rib injury, it looks as if it’s going to come down between Raheem Mostert and Alfred Morris for the third spot on the depth chart.
Mostert’s ability to be an elite gunner on special teams, along with his familiarity with the system definitely gives him an edge to earn the third spot.
However, after the injuries to both McKinnon and Breida, the 49ers signed Morris seemingly for depth. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is familiar with Morris, as he coached him in Washington. Morris had his best year under Shanahan in 2012, running for over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns.
After not playing him at all last week against the Texans, it’s unclear exactly what plans Shanahan has for Morris. Is he keeping four backs on the roster? Is Morris’ spot already guaranteed? No one will really know for another two weeks.
Morris is set to start against the Colts, so we’ll be able to get a glimpse of just how well he can play within the 49ers’ run game.
Josh Garnett: The Missing Piece?
Four of the five spots on the offensive line are just about set in stone. All but right guard is up for grabs. Coming into the preseason, no one really knew who was going to fill that last spot on the line.
After missing all last season with an injury, Josh Garnett saw his first action in the Shanahan system last week against the Texans. He played with the second team, but he showed a lot of promise.
Garnett is one of the few players left over from the Trent Baalke regime. The former general manager picked Garnett in the first round of the 2016 draft. After John Lynch and Shanahan were hired, they mostly cleaned house, but Garnett was able to survive on the roster.
Coming into the 2018 offseason, many fans and analysts had a negative opinion of Garnett, and felt that he wouldn’t fit into Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. He missed the first preseason game because he went to get a second opinion on his knee. Many saw this as the final nail in the coffin for Garnett.
However, he wisely spent his off year getting into shape and getting familiar with Shanahan’s system. And it seems to have paid off.
If Garnett can string together another couple of good performances, don’t be surprised to see him starting in between Weston Richburg and Mike McGlinchey Week 1.
The 49ers on Thursday traded another ex-Baalke pick, Eli Harold, to the Detroit Lions for conditional seventh round pick. This was a bit of a surprise, because while not flashy, Harold was a solid player and slated to be a starter for them.
With Harold out, it’s unsure who will take his spot. Shanahan said Mark Nzeocha will start at SAM against the Colts.
The 49ers also have Pita Taumoepenu and Dekoda Watson as options to play in Harold’s spot. It will be quite an interesting battle to watch for the next couple weeks.
Media courtesy George Bridges/AP Images, Rob Lowder, Ted Nguyen, San Francisco 49ers