After a coaching change and a lockout, the 49ers offense wasn't expected to be sharp in its first preseason game. But it wasn't expected to be this bad, either. The group that struggled the most - the offensive line - returned nearly in tact this season and retained its position coach, Mike Solari. But the line was thoroughly overmatched by the Saints defense both in scheme - Saints coordinator Gregg Williams sent blitzes throughout the game that the 49ers were not ready for - and in individual matchups.
The offensive line gave up six sacks, five of them by the first-team unit, which played into the second quarter against the Saints backup defense. What's most alarming is that the group allowed three big hits on starting quarterback Alex Smith, including on the third play of the game when defensive end Will Smith got inside left tackle Joe Staley and slammed into Smith from behind.
The 49ers have four quarterbacks on the roster - Smith and three rookies. While Colin Kaepernick showed flashes of potential - a 20-yard dart here, an impressive scramble there - he also showed he is very much a rookie who isn't close to being a starter. He completed 9-19 passes for 117 yards, two interceptions, two fumbles and no touchdowns. His passer rating was 27.6. He also was slow in getting the play called in the huddle, although that improved as the game went on.
Although coach Jim Harbaugh said he thought fellow rookies Jeremiah Masoli and McLeod Bethel-Thompson also would play, Smith and Kaepernick got all of the snaps. Smith played five series but only was in on 17 plays. He didn't get a first down until the fifth series. It came on a good-looking 12-yard slant pattern to Braylon Edwards. That was the highlight of the evening for Smith, who finished 2-7 for 10 yards
Kaepernick took over early in the second quarter and initially played behind the first-team offensive line. His first pass was a bullet down the middle to Lance Long for 20 yards. However, he was sacked on the next three plays.
The poor play by the offense offset a very good defensive performance. The 49ers starting defense forced three-and-outs by Drew Brees and the Saints offense on their first three series. Brees left the game just before the end of the first quarter having completed one pass for six yards. He had the same passer rating - 39.6 - as Alex Smith.
Here are a few notes and observations about individual players.
OLB Aldon Smith. He entered the game late in the first quarter and played deep into the fourth quarter. He was very active both rushing the passer and in the running game. He recoded the 49ers' only sack - against Saints backup Chase Daniels for a six-yard loss. He induced a false start by the Saints left tackle in the first quarter. Smith snuffed out a reverse in the third quarter when he stayed upfield, halted receiver Joseph Morgan and allowed Keaton Kristick to get the tackle for a six-yard loss. Smith finished tied for the team lead with five tackles.
OLB Ahmad Brooks. He started at left outside linebacker opposite Parys Haralson. Brooks looked good in practice heading into the game, and it carried over. He was active on the pass rush, knocking down Brees on the Saints first third-down attempt. He also flushed Daniels from the pocket in the second quarter. If not for overused punter Andy Lee, Brooks would have been the team's first-half MVP.
WR Braylon Edwards. He didn't start the game but was in on several plays in the first quarter as the 49ers try to get him in sync with Alex Smith. Smith threw twice in his direction, both on slant patterns. The first was behind the receiver and incomplete. The second was thrown with more confidence and connected for 12 yards and the 49ers' first first down of the game.
WR Kyle Williams. He was the team's best-looking wideout. The rap on Williams is that he is too fragile. But he threw his body around Friday like he was in the WWF. Williams knocked down a Saints defensive lineman on a crack-back block in the second quarter. He had another knockdown of a linemen in which he was flagged for an illegal block, although the replay showed it was shoulder to shoulder. Williams (5-10, 186) also recorded the tackle on Kaepernick's first interception. And he caught the ball. Williams had the longest catch of the game, a 25-yarder that came on a slant pattern and in which he broke two tackles.
CB Tramaine Brock. He may have played more snaps than anyone Friday. With injuries to Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown, Brock started the game opposite Carlos Rogers and played deep into the second half. Brock was part of a stingy defense that didn't allow much for the Saints' top units. He nearly was burned on a deep pass from Brees to Robert Meachem in the first quarter, but the throw was incomplete. It appeared that Brock was looking for deep help from safety Donte Whitner, who instead dropped down to cover the underneath route. Whitner nearly picked off a Brees pass on the previous series. All in all, it was a solid game for the second-year player from Belhaven.
RB Frank Gore. He was the lone bright spot when it came to the first-team defense. Gore looked very much like his old self in rushing four times for 20 yards early in the first quarter. It was his first game since fracturing his hip Nov. 29.
RB Anthony Dixon. He replaced Gore in the first quarter and finished with seven carries for 16 yards. Dixon continues to take an extra step or two when approaching the line of scrimmage, something that running backs coach Tom Rathman is sure to harp on when the team returns to Santa Clara.
ILB Larry Grant. He had a solid game substituting for Patrick Willis. Grant also played deep into the second half and tied for the team lead in tackles. Another inside linebacker, Scott McKillop, did not make the trip due to an injury.
ILB Keaton Kristick. He moves well and is usually around the ball. However, he was late reacting on a couple of plays, including Mark Ingram's 14-yard run at the end of the second quarter. Kristick didn't arrive in time to meet Ingram coming out of the hole. The running back also ran out of a poor wrap-up tackle by safety C.J. Spillman.
OT Mike Person. The rookie from Montana State was part of the second-team offensive line that may have been better than the first team. Person lined up at right tackle and Alex Boone played left tackle. Both had solid outings.
S Colin Jones. He's had a very small role with the defense in traininng-camp practices. But he was prominent friday on special teams. Jones is lining up in the fullback role on punt coverage. He had a nice tackle on one of Lee's punts but missed a tackle on Morgan's long punt return for a touchdown.
DE Demarcus Dobbs. He stood out on the third-string defense. Dobbs lined up at right defensive end and did a good job staying active on running plays to his side and making plays on the running back. Dobbs is 6-6, 275 pounds and has long arms. He needs to add size and strength and appears to be a good candidate for the practice squad.
Other notes: As expected, Whitner and Madieu Williams started at safety. Dashon Goldson did not suit up for the game. ... Kyle Williams and rookie Ronald Johnson handled the punt returns while rookie Kendall Hunter was given a chance at kickoffs. All of them were booted deep into the end zone. Hunter returned two. ... Adam Snyder started the game at center but Jonathan Goodwin came in during the third series to work with the first-team offensive line. ...The 49ers averaged 3.1 yards per pass play (includes sacks). Last year they averaged 5.3.
-- Matt Barrows