LAS VEGAS — The Las Vegas Raiders tried twice to ice San Francisco 49ers’ kicker Jake Moody in Sunday’s preseason opener.
It worked both times and was emblematic of the afternoon for the visiting team. The rookie missed from 40 and 58 yards, his contributions to the long list of 49ers’ errors that ended in a 34-7 blowout defeat.
The second icing attempt, which came in the fourth quarter, might’ve been the most exasperating turn for the 49ers in a day brimming with them.
“We’re trying to get out of here, too,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of that moment after the game. “We want to go back home. We’ve been here too long.”
The 49ers landed in Nevada on Tuesday and finally flew back to the Bay Area on Sunday evening. Thursday and Friday featured two grueling joint practices at the Raiders’ facility. The 49ers say their time in the desert was productive, but Sunday’s finish — featuring primarily second- and third-stringers — was not a photogenic one.
“We got two good practices against them,” Shanahan said. “I always like when you can do that and we practiced really hard the second day, especially with the ones. And that’s really good, so we didn’t have to dress any of them today. I didn’t enjoy that game by any means today, but a lot of guys got a lot of valuable reps. That gives them a chance to make our team. Gives us a chance to coach them up.”
Quarterbacks Trey Lance and Sam Darnold, as expected, headlined the outing for the 49ers. Lance, who started and played the first half, did not play efficiently. He was sacked four times. Raiders defenders dropped two throws from Lance that should’ve been interceptions, including one that bounced to 49ers tight end Ross Dwelley for a fortunate touchdown. That followed an especially skittish start to the game from the QB and his offensive line.
Niners score a wild TD 😮
— NFL (@NFL) August 13, 2023
“It got off to a rough start for everybody,” Shanahan said. “Three three-and-outs, I don’t put that all on Trey, but the whole offense was sloppy to start.”
Shanahan was happier with Darnold, who completed 5-of-8 passes for 84 yards in the second half. That included a perfectly placed deep strike to rookie receiver Ronnie Bell.
“I thought he did a great job,” Shanahan said of Darnold. “Came in there in the second half. He was in there with twos and threes on the O-line, same with the receivers. So we wanted to be careful with Sam.”
Trey Lance’s struggling performance raises more 49ers questions
The 49ers should ramp up their preparation for the regular season this week. They host the Broncos in another preseason game on Saturday, during which the starters — namely quarterback Brock Purdy — are expected to see at least some playing time.
Before then, Shanahan’s staff will analyze game tape from the many youngsters that played against the Raiders.
One player of focus will be rookie safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who notched three tackles — including a touchdown-saving stop of Raiders’ running back Zamir White in the first quarter.
“The wide receiver came down and tried to crack the linebacker,” Brown said in the locker room afterward. “I read the running back, saw he was trying to go outside, came down and made a play for the team.”
That was Brown’s first chance in over eight months to bring an opponent to the ground.
“It felt good to get back out there, man, to be able to tackle somebody,” Brown said. “I think the last time I tackled somebody was the Rose Bowl back in January. You never really get those live reps in practice.”
The 49ers have talked of experimenting with three-safety sets during the regular season. That’s how current starter Talanoa Hufanga broke into the rotation in 2021. Brown can follow a similar path to join Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. on the field, especially because there are some questions about how veteran nickelback Isaiah Oliver will hold up in coverage. Oliver was one of the 49ers’ few presumed starters to play Sunday, and he allowed two receptions including a touchdown to Raiders’ receiver Keelan Cole Sr.
Brown and linebackers Jalen Graham and Dee Winters — both of whom are also rookies — combined for 14 tackles on the afternoon. They were some of the 49ers’ top performers on the defensive side of the ball.
So was third-year cornerback Ambry Thomas, who logged a pair of tackles, a pass breakup and a quality third-down rep in coverage. Thomas is vying to reassert himself after seeing only scant playing time last season. The 49ers need trusted cornerback depth behind starters Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir, so there’s a clear role for players like Thomas, Samuel Womack III and undrafted rookie D’Shawn Jamison to fill.
Niners come up with the stop on 4th down 😤
— NFL (@NFL) August 13, 2023
Thomas said that his success Sunday traces back to a play he made against star 49ers tight end George Kittle during the offseason program.
“Tay Martin and I got into it at practice,” Thomas said. “He had caught a 5-yard hitch. I pushed him. Kittle came to protect him, and then we got into it. Then that next drive, Kittle ran a dig on me, and I broke it up. Ever since that moment from OTAs, I felt that something else sparked inside of me.”
Said Shanahan about Thomas: “I thought he did a good job. I think Ambry, starting off in OTAs and all the way to training camp, he’s come back a different player last than last year. And it looked that way from the sidelines. He flew around, made a couple tackles. I’m excited to watch him on the plane.”
The play of Bell, Thomas’ former college teammate at Michigan, also excited Shanahan. The rookie receiver caught three passes for 58 yards, broke two tackles on a jet sweep and was the 49ers’ primary kick and punt returner against the Raiders. Both return jobs are currently open after 49ers veteran Ray-Ray McCloud III recently broke his wrist and is expected to miss about two months.
“I thought Ronnie did some really good things in the return game, had that jet sweep, made some good catches,” Shanahan said, before pivoting to Bell’s one bad play — a drop that turned into an interception for Raiders’ cornerback Sam Webb. “His best route was the one he served up on the pick, so that was unfortunate.”
And then there were Moody’s two missed field goals, which will undoubtedly be two heavily scrutinized mistakes. Moody, whom the 49ers picked in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, is looking to fill the shoes of reliable veteran Robbie Gould — so there’s major pressure at this spot.
“It just happens,” Moody said of his misses. “I’m glad it happened now. There’s a lot to learn from it. I’ll watch the tape and move on to the next one. … I was hoping we would have one more just so I could prove that those were flukes and that’s not normal. I wanted one more to feel better, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until next week.”
(Top photo of Jake Moody: Ian Maule / Getty Images)
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