Sometimes, a single game can change the course of an entire season, and a single play can change the course of an entire game. In this feature, some of the most crucial plays from last week are analyzed and broken down.
As mentioned in the preseason week 4 recap, the 49ers are much happier with their receiving corps today than they were coming into the preseason.
With Anquan Boldin getting a veteran’s day off, the 49ers got their first start from fourth-round rookie Quinton Patton out of Louisiana Tech. Patton had already made a number of waves in the offseason, flying out to San Francisco on his own dime without realizing draft picks weren’t allowed to visit their new teams. Nursing a broken finger, he practiced under strict orders to not catch the football – he would run routes and watch as the ball zipped by him.
It wasn’t until the third game, against Minnesota, that Patton even saw the field, and that’s when he started impressing. In that game, he caught four passes for 35 yards, looking sharp and well-matched with Colin Kaepernick working out of the slot position. It was enough to give him a chance at starting in the fourth and final preseason game.
The Game: San Francisco 49ers (2-1) @ San Diego Chargers (1-2)
The Stakes: As it’s a preseason game, nothing major is at stake in the matchup for the teams, but for players trying to make the 53-man roster, these games are crucial. Final cutdowns are on Saturday, after all, so 22 of the players on each team will be looking for work. It’s the last chance to impress the staff.
The Situation: We’re starting right at the beginning of this game – with starters playing very limited time, we have to take plays from early on. The 49ers’ starters have come out on offense to start the game, and it’s only about four minutes in. The drive started on their own 23, but a key third-down completion from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis kept the 49ers moving into San Diego territory, where they face a third and four on the Chargers’ 43 yard line.
The 49ers line up with Kaepernick back in the shotgun, with three receivers split out. Patton is lined up as the flanker, with Chad Hall next to him in the slot, and Marlon Moore split out to the weak side. It’s not all starters, though – Vernon Davis is sitting out the play, giving Vance McDonald time to show his stuff at tight end. The Chargers, in their nickel package, line up like they want to send everyone at the quarterback – they’ve got seven men on the line of scrimmage, including their nickel back, Richard Marshall. Hall is left uncovered, while the other two corners play very tight against Moore and Patton, leaving two safeties playing deep.
As the play begins, the Chargers only rush five of their seven men from the line, dropping their two linebackers back into coverage and blitzing Marshall. This leaves only Marcus Cromartie to cover both Hall and Patton, while three men are in close range around Moore out on the weak-side.
Against the pressure, the 49ers run a quick bubble screen. Hall runs out and tries to physically impose himself between Cromartie and Patton, but Cromartie does a very good job of shaking him off. Tight end McDonald makes a beeline for the deep safety on that side, Jahleel Addae, and both Alex Boone and Anthony Davis come out to start providing a first wall of blocking. Patton drops back a yard to let the blocking get in front of him, and catches the quick pass from Kaepernick.
That’s where the play could have ended, too – Cromartie gets off Hall’s block very quickly and has a chance to wrap Patton up, but Patton makes a great side-step to the outside, sending Cromartie tumbling to the ground. That juke was enough to ensure the first down, but that’s not all Patton had coming. He uses his speed to blow by linebacker DJ Smith and starts racing up the sideline.
That’s where the advanced blocking really comes into play. Hall seals the other safety, Sean Catthouse, out of the play, somewhat making up for his horrible block to start the play. Davis absolutely blows up Addae to seal a corner for Patton to run past, and from there, it’s just Patton’s 4.53-40 yard speed allowing him to blow down the sideline for his second touchdown in two games. It’s 7-0 49ers, and the Chargers would never get closer on their way to being blown out, 41-6.
The Aftermath: The 49ers desperately need someone to be a standout receiver, at least until Michael Crabtree comes back, and Patton has shown more than anyone else in preseason so far. It’s something of a tossup between him, Moore, and Kyle Williams, who hasn’t yet played in any preseason games, for the second through fourth receiver spots, at least for now.
“I just tried to make a play,” Patton said postgame. “‘Kap’ believed in me… I’m just trying to make him happy.”
“He made a great play,” Kaepernick said. “That’s what he’s shown us throughout this camp, that he can make plays like that. And that’s what he did tonight.”
So, what can we expect from Patton in the regular season? Keep in mind, he’ll drop down at least one slot when everyone’s healthy; possibly two when Mario Manningham comes back. At the moment, I see him getting the third most targets of any 49ers wide receiver this season, behind Boldin and Davis – I expect him to take down the second starting job sooner rather than later, probably returning to the slot when Crabtree is healthy. That should work its way out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 receptions, give or take, for somewhere in the vicinity of 400 yards. I’m seeing a lot of talk about him being a fantasy sleeper. It might be a season too early for that – but he’s definitely trending positive, rocking up the charts. He’ll be an interesting player to watch this season.