The San Francisco 49ers will be in Texas tonight to play the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium in Texas, and to dig for depth. The team can take comfort in the fact that their starting lineup is, basically, set.
From the looks of things during training camp, the depth doesn’t look so bad, which means head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff will have some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks.
For now, though, in this second preseason game, you should pay the closest attention to what the backups do on the field when they get their chances. Don’t be too concerned if running back Frank Gore, who sat out last week, doesn’t play all much. Ditto quarterback Alex Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith or linebacker Patrick Willis.
Instead, here are five factors to watch tonight from the Niners’ perspective.
1. The receivers: Don’t expect many receptions for Randy Moss or even Michael Crabtree, but the team will want to see what rookie A.J. Jenkins can do, especially since the position is already crowded. Mario Manningham, who rested for last week’s game, will make his debut tonight. Based on training camp, the former New York Giants’ No. 3 looks like the likely No. 2… or better. The team also needs to get reps for Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams in order to clear up some questions on the depth chart, though each can return kicks and punts, respectively, thus adding to their value to special teams if not on the regular offense.
2. The pass rush and linebackers: Outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will miss tonight’s game; Smith suffered a bruised hip last week against the Minnesota Vikings in both teams’ opening game and Brooks has been battling a pesky knee, leaving Willis as the only regular active for this game. Even rookie draft choices Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson are hurt. The team only carried three outside ‘backers last season, so watch for Eric Bakhtiari, who has been getting snaps with the first team, Parys Haralson and Kourtnei Brown.
3. The secondary, especially safety Trenton Robinson: The group is solid and Robinson, a rookie, is the fourth safety in, but he could play his way into specialty roles during the regular season based on what he does in the preseason. Tonight he should get plenty of reps, giving defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plenty of tape.
4. Offensive line depth: The starting five could be among the best in the NFC, but depth is a serious question. For instance, the team has yet to find a solid backup left tackle and will give Mike Person plenty of reps tonight, as they did last week. Person has also played at left guard. In general, pay attention the entire second and third offensive line groups, the best of them will be key players on the final depth chart.
5. The backup quarterbacks: Both Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien were impressive last week against the Vikings, and they’ll get plenty of reps tonight, not only to prove they belong but that each could take over if necessary. Also, watch for Josh Johnson, who appears to be in a make-or-break situation to make the team, depending on how he performs in the next two weeks.
In general, if you are looking for a depth player and don’t see him on the field, you can bet that he has fallen out of favor and might be among the first cuts.
INJURY REPORT: LB Ahmad Brooks (knee), DB Perrish Cox (knee), WR Joe Hastings (leg), LB Cam Johnson (knee), LB Aldon Smith (hip), TE Delanie Walker (knee) are all out.