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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: Shanahan on Trey Lance; More explosive Deebo?; Jake Moody’s career milestone; Cam Latu delivers; Ronnie Bell brings the YAC

Aug 19, 2023 at 11:40 PM

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Much of Saturday night's preseason game against the Denver Broncos was a dull, mistake-filled affair for the San Francisco 49ers, but by the time the game was over, there was a lot to talk about -- especially when it comes to the quarterback position.

Brock Purdy cemented his hold on the starting spot by going 4-of-5 for 65 yards in his lone possession of the game, but things didn't get any clearer when it came to the battle for the backup position between Sam Darnold and Trey Lance. Darnold played two quarters worth of football and finished 11-of-14 for 109 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while Lance finished the game by leading the 49ers to a last-second 21-20 victory after going 12-of-18 for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Each quarterback will likely have one more chance to state their case in a game situation when the 49ers close the preseason against the Los Angeles Chargers on Friday. But for now, things are looking up for Lance after a shaky outing in his first preseason game. We have some comments on the quarterbacks from head coach Kyle Shanahan in this version of 49ers Notebook, plus some tidbits on wide receiver Deebo Samuel, kicker Jake Moody, and more. Let's get into it...

Shanahan's QB assessment

Overall, Kyle Shanahan seemed pleased with how his quarterbacks played against the Broncos on Saturday night, despite the fact there were two interceptions on the evening. The first interception, which came from Darnold, went through the hands of wide receiver Ronnie Bell, while the second interception came on a batted pass from Broncos defensive lineman Matt Henningsen that landed into the arms of defensive lineman Elijah Garcia and for a time looked like it may have hit the ground. Shanahan wasn't too critical about either interception and thought each of his quarterbacks took a step forward on Saturday.

"I thought all three of them did a good job," Shanahan said. "I thought the two picks we had, one was a tip that Ronnie had, and the other one, I thought that D-lineman made a good play on that screen, which we still thought (the officials) were going to reverse it, but I think it was inconclusive in some of the shots. But I thought all three of them did a good job and good stepping stone for next week."

In his first action since undergoing elbow surgery in the offseason, Purdy turned in a performance that earned him a passing grade. Purdy might have gotten the 49ers in the end zone on his lone possession of the game had he not gotten sacked near the goal line, but other than that his appearance in Saturday night's game went well.

"I thought he did real good," Shanahan said. "All the plays that he had, he made, and I don't think he had a bad one. And that sack, we busted a protection, and we'll see if he could have done anything about it and got rid of it. You always try your hardest to get rid of it because once you get sacked there, it's tough to score. But it didn't look like there was much you could do live."

Lance's interception got him off to another shaky start after he began last week's game with three consecutive three-and-outs. But he rebounded and looked relaxed and confident as he led the 49ers to a come-from-behind win.

"It seemed like it," Shanahan said. "I mean, I think always when you don't go three and out, it helps. So I think we got a little bit of better rhythm for him. It still took a little bit while to get going. Not just him, but the whole group. I thought we were a little sloppy throughout the whole game. Way too many penalties. Seemed like when we did get some stuff going, especially there in the second quarter, it seemed like we always had a penalty or missed assignment. So I thought it was smoother than last week. But by no means were we pumped about it.

"I was pumped how we finished, pumped about the win, some good things, but still got a lot to do to clean up."

As for Lance, he'll be able to take Saturday's win as a learning experience, while getting more much-needed reps under his belt. He still has a long road ahead of him, but the vibe surrounding him has certainly improved from the first preseason game.

"I feel like every time I step on the field I learn so much," Lance said. "I get so much better from every rep, whether it's practice, games or whatever -- just seeing as many pictures as I can and continue to get as many reps as I can with these guys. "

A first for Jake Moody

This might come as a surprise to 49ers fans, but Saturday night's decisive field goal at the end of regulation marked the first time rookie Jake Moody has made such a kick in his career. He's had one that came close, but the kick against the Broncos was the first one Moody connected on to win the game as time expired.

"That was my first walk-off game winner I've ever hit," Moody said. "I had one at Michigan that was like 13 seconds left, so technically they could have come back and scored. But that was the first walk-off game winner I've ever had, so that's pretty cool."

The kick was a big one for Moody, who missed two field goals in the 49ers' Week 1 preseason loss to the Raiders and missed an extra point attempt earlier in Saturday's game. The 49ers ran out the clock towards the end of regulation to give Moody the chance to make the kick as time expired, which Shanahan said he might not have done if it weren't Moody's first opportunity to do so. Moody's in-game inconsistencies continue not to worry Shanahan, although his young kicker will need to carry his practice success over to games once the regular season starts.

"It was better this week than last week," Shanahan said. "I can say that it's been extremely consistent in practice, which is why I don't worry too much, and I think he'll keep getting better as he goes. But there's pressure in those situations, and that's really what he's got to go through is those pressure moments. And it was cool to generate some of those for him today and a step forward from last week, but we just got to keep him getting consistent and being the same on game day as he is in practice."

Despite his lack of experience in walk-off situations, Moody said he wasn't nervous as he lined up to make the game winner.

"We practice those situations for when they do come up, so you don't feel the nerves, so you've done it a million times," Moody said. "It just felt like a normal kick."

A new and improved Deebo?

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel made his preseason debut Saturday night, and he made a quick impression by catching two short passes for 39 yards before leaving the game with the rest of the starters. Samuel is coming into the 2023 season with renewed intensity after disappointing himself with his 2022 performance, so plenty of eyes were on him to see how he looked.

In a word, Samuel looked explosive -- more so than last season, according to Brock Purdy.

"I think Deebo has obviously taken last year's film and everything and has been real with himself," Purdy said. "And, man, you've seen a different mindset with him all throughout camp. Every single rep even if he's not getting the ball, he's running extremely hard and doing his part for the team. And so today I feel like you saw a little glimpse of, hey, he's going to do his job. When he gets the ball, he's going to be Deebo.

"But even when he doesn't, he's still going to be where he needs to be and be there for the team, sort of set the standard. And so Debo's done a great job with that, and we're really excited about what he's going to do."

Purdy not worried about practice interceptions

Brock Purdy didn't throw any interceptions against the Broncos, but during practices that hasn't been the case. Purdy has had his share of interceptions in practices this month, which seems to have bothered him -- but only a little bit.

Purdy talked about his practice interceptions Saturday night and said he obviously wants to complete every pass, but he's not going to get too bent out of shape about throwing interceptions in practice.

"I take pride in not turning the ball over," Purdy said. Yes, that's huge as a quarterback to be able to make smart decisions every single snap, every single play. So it's not like I'm just going out there throwing stuff up and saying, all right, I'm trying stuff out. It's nothing like that. I'm a competitor, I want to be able to rip the ball, obviously, coming off an injury, sort of seeing where I'm at with some throws and stuff, that's a thing, but outside of that, it's practice for a reason.

"And obviously I'm trying to find that edge and that little chip every single day. So, yeah, I just keep working out my craft and go about it that way. But yeah, to make a big deal about interceptions and stuff at practice and whatnot, I don't know, if you get tied up in that and wrapped up in that, I feel like it's sort of for nothing in a sense. What matters is game days on Sundays and being in the moment, making the right decision when you're in real situational football and stuff. But you can work on that at practice."

A YAC king in the making?

Rookie Ronnie Bell has made two costly mistakes over his first two preseason games by letting passes go through his hands to lead to interceptions in each game. But other than that, he's been largely quite impressive.

Bell finished with seven catches for 114 yards Saturday night and was instrumental on the game's final drive. His first catch was a 14-yard grab on a short pass where he fought through tackles for extra yardage, then he made a 43-yard catch and run to help set up the game-winning field goal.

Bell seems to fit right in with a group of 49ers receivers that specializes in yards after the catch. He's been inspired to improve in that category given the prowess of teammates like Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

"It's something I've always prided myself on," Bell said Saturday night. "Last year I wasn't very pleased with the way that I ran with the ball in my hands. So that was something that was a big point of emphasis on myself to improve in my game. So yeah, that's something I want to continue to improve on, especially around these guys, the way they're toting the ball. I want to be able to do the same thing."

Lance wasn't surprised to see Bell make big plays after seeing what the seventh-round pick is capable of in practice.

"He's been making plays," Lance said. "Super fun. He does it in practice every single day so not surprising for any of the guys to see in the locker room, or it shouldn't be surprising for anyone who sees him day to day. He comes in and does a great job."

The 49ers may need Bell to continue to step up in the weeks ahead, both at wide receiver and in the return game. With Ray-Ray McCloud and Danny Gray possibly sidelined for a while due to injuries, Bell can help with the depth in both areas, as long as he avoids any further drops.

"I mean, it starts by being able to make plays, and lots of guys, you expect guys to catch it when they're in a good spot," Shanahan said. "And he's missed two of those which were very similar, both of them, that have led to picks. But I think all you guys saw the plays he's made, just with the ball in his hand, breaking tackles. I think that's a lot of for a guy to do that in his first two games as a punt returner and as a receiver shows that he can hang with our group, and hopefully he can clean this stuff up, because we did give him a lot of opportunities. So by no means was he perfect.

"So he's still got a long way to go, and he's got to get better. But having Danny down today, Ray-Ray down, we need some guys to step it up, and he's giving himself a chance."

Bell is still trying to figure out what went wrong on both of his drops, but he knows it can't keep happening.

"Gotta catch the ball," Bell said. "I don't even know really what exactly it is. I've got to figure out what it is though, for sure. That's two in a row. Last week I feel like I let myself relax, and this week I couldn't tell you what I did, so I've just got to fix it."

Big step for Latu

Saturday night's game may prove to be a turning point in the career of tight end Cameron Latu, who by all accounts has had a rough preseason due in large part to numerous dropped passes in practice.

Latu was unable to haul in the first pass that came his way Saturday night, but he caught the next three, including the touchdown on the 49ers' penultimate drive to bring them to within 20-18. Latu finished with three catches for 46 yards to go with the touchdown.

"I was real happy for him," Shanahan said. "Sometimes when that starts in practice and it's tough to get out of it and a lot of eyes are on him and he's had a few of them, and it's kind of steamrolled on him. That usually makes it hard to go into games like he did today. And I think his first catch was a rollout from Sam going to the right and made a hell of a catch on his first one, which probably took the monkey off his back a little bit.
Probably got him to relax a little. And I think he made three more throughout the game and got that big touchdown for us."

Latu told reporters Saturday he's tried to battle through his drops by keeping his mind set on what he needs to do to help the 49ers succeed.

"When I was dropping passes and stuff, obviously that's not the 49er standard, and I had to step up and just play at their play at their standard, you know, play at the level that they're playing," Latu said. "And, like, that is unacceptable to drop passes and stuff like that. So I just tried to focus on what I got to do to help the team win and what I could do for this team."

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