What we learned about 49ers in thrilling preseason win vs. Broncos originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers showed a slice of their regular-season offense for 5 minutes, 45 seconds on Saturday night.
While running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and left tackle Trent Williams were not on the field when the 49ers lined up against the Denver Broncos in a preseason game at Levi’s Stadium, starting quarterback Brock Purdy and his three top wide receivers were together again for an opening drive that covered 68 yards on nine plays.
Trey Lance led the 49ers on three late scoring drives, and rookie kicker Jake Moody barely snuck a 32-yarder inside the right upright as time expired for a 21-20 win over the Broncos.
Purdy showed that he is ready for the 49ers’ regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Sept. 10, as he completed four of five pass attempts for 65 yards. Deebo Samuel caught two passes for 39 yards, while Brandon Aiyuk had one catch for 15 yards and Jauan Jennings added an 11-yard reception.
After Purdy’s one-series stint, the focus turned to the true quarterback competition — the one for the backup job.
Here are three takeaways from the second of three 49ers preseason games:
Darnold vs. Lance for No. 2
Quarterback Sam Darnold had a solid outing after entering in the first quarter, and Trey Lance had his moments, too.
Darnold’s final series ended with a touchdown, while Lance was intercepted to bring his first drive to a conclusion. After that, Lance was sharp in leading the 49ers on three consecutive scoring drives for the win.
Lance led a seven-play, 75-yard drive that he capped with a 22-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Cameron Latu. The 49ers’ two-point conversion attempt to tie the game was pushed back to the 17-yard line when out-of-uniform starters ran onto the field to celebrate.
Then, Lance led the 64-yard drive that ended with Moody’s winning field goal.
Lance completed 12 of 18 pass attempts for 173 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Darnold played 27 snaps and completed 11 of 14 passes for 109 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown to fullback Jack Colletto on his final play of the game. The veteran quarterback threw an interception but he won’t be downgraded for that. His pass intended for Ronnie Bell hit the rookie in the hands and was caught on the rebound by Essang Bassey.
Darnold’s best throw of the night was a dart to Jennings under pressure for a 21-yard gain. However, the play was nullified by Jon Feliciano’s holding penalty.
Darnold was sacked twice but also gained 18 yards on two scrambles.
Lance got off to a rough start when he tried to fit a short pass to running back Jeremy McNichols. However, defensive end Matt Henningsen got his hands on it, and defensive lineman Elijah Garcia made the sprawling interception.
Replacing Ray-Ray in return game
Bell, the rookie receiver, had an up-and-down game. He was up as a return man and had another down moment as a receiver. But he ended up finishing strong on offense, too.
It was much worse for fellow rookie D’Shawn Jamison, whose muffed punt inside the 10-yard line was turned into seven quick Broncos points.
Meanwhile, Bell handled punts flawlessly. He fielded a third-quarter punt at the 7-yard line and picked his way through the crowd for a 28-yard return to the 49ers’ 35-yard line.
But for the second game in a row, Bell failed to catch a well-thrown pass and the ball deflected to the defense for an interception. Bell also fumbled at the end of an 8-yard reception. Teammate Troy Fumagalli recovered the loose ball.
Bell ended up with seven receptions for 114 yards, including a 43-yard catch and run to set up the winning field goal.
Bell, a seventh-round draft pick from Michigan, is battling for one of five or six receiver spots. He appears to be in good shape to make the team and, perhaps, handle return chores to open the season.
Veteran Ray-Ray McCloud remains questionable for the early portion of the regular season due to a fractured wrist. McCloud underwent surgery last Friday.
Second-year wide receiver Danny Gray had a 23-yard kickoff return to open the game. However, he was ruled out of Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury after not playing in the preseason opener due to tightness in his hip.
Considering options at nickel back
The 49ers are looking at their options at nickel back after Isaiah Oliver failed to secure the starting job through the first three weeks of practices and one preseason game.
When the 49ers’ defense took the field against the Broncos’ starters, Ambry Thomas and Charvarius Ward started at the cornerback positions. When the 49ers went to their nickel defense, Deommodore Lenoir entered at nickel back.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said this week the team would be looking for ways to get their best five defensive backs on the field in passing situations, and that could mean getting Thomas or Samuel Womack on the field.
Lenoir and Ward are the presumptive starting cornerbacks and Lenoir has the skillset and knowledge of the system to move inside to line up against the opposing slot receiver.
After the first series, Womack and Thomas played the cornerback positions with Oliver entering at nickel back. On Oliver’s first play, he missed tackle of Denver tight end Greg Dulcich that enabled him to pick up another 10 yards for an 18-yard gain on a third-and-8 play.