By Seth Payne

The fourth preseason game.  For many young players, this is where experience and pressure combine to produce their best results.  For others, it’s where they flame out.  Here are the challenges some of these young guys will face Thursday vs. San Francisco.

1. Case Keenum and Tom Savage vs The Blitz

This preseason we’ve seen free pass rushers mollywhop both backup quarterbacks.  While we can admire their willingness to keep their eyes down field, NFL coaches also value quarterbacks who can keep their jaws attached to their bodies.  When Tom Savage drove the offense down the field for the game winning touchdown and 2 point conversion against the Broncos, he did face a 6 man blitz.  It was the 4th and 3 play where he rifled the ball to Travis Labhart for a first down.  Still, we need to see him do this consistently.

The ability to dissect blitzes eluded Keenum last year, and he hasn’t shown much progress in that area this training camp.  Last week he was sacked by an edge rusher that was the quarterback’s responsibility.  We saw the same thing several times last year in a Kubiak scheme that didn’t put nearly as much pressure on the quarterback to be involved with pass protection.  Sometimes things will suddenly start to click for a young quarterback, and Keenum has a shot to do that tonight.

2. A.J. Bouye versus 49ers WR Stevie Johnson

A.J. Bouye is a guy whose aggressiveness both excites and scares you as a fan.  He has made some great plays on the ball, but he is vulnerable to double moves.  Stevie Johnson is an unorthodox route runner, whose style has been likened to a knuckle-baller.  He jukes and jabs more than most receivers, and he does it so well that even Darrelle Revis has had difficulty with him at times.  Bouye has matured his game in fits and starts, and I hope to see more progress vs San Francisco.

3. ILB Max Bullough vs. Offensive Guards

Max is an enigma.  He’s a big guy who isn’t all that fast, but his slow feet seem to be more of a liability in run defense than pass coverage because he has a knack for getting into passing lanes.   I was hoping that Max would be one of those players who is a little too slow but figures out a way to get it done with instinct, anticipation, and physical play. So far, I haven’t seen that.  He doesn’t take on blocks with any violence at all, and he is late to arrive on outside running plays.   In the power run game, he just lets 330 lb. guards run into him without using his hands to stack and shed.  You’re gonna lose that battle, son.  Physics.

Bullough has to get violent against the 49ers, plain and simple.  He needs to use brute force in situations where others might use speed.

4. Louis Nix vs. Inexperience  

I was a little nervous after Louis Nix’s first few reps last week.  His pad level was too high, he got knocked out of his assigned gaps, and he looked like an average rookie.  As he settled into the game, though, he started to look more like the guy he has the potential to be.  He used his hands aggressively and showed some burst off the ball for a big hoss.  Nobody needs training camp like a rookie, and Nix missed almost all of it.  I expect him to improve a lot from last week to this week.  The Broncos didn’t give the Texans much opportunity to play in their base defensive front, where Nix plays the two-gap nose tackle.  He should get plenty of opportunities when the 49ers bring their old school power running attack to NRG Stadium.

5. Whitney Mercilus vs. His Left Brain

Whitney is a guy that is very cognizant of his responsibilities within the scheme, which is a good thing.  The problem is that he sometimes appears to be so concerned with doing the right thing that it hampers his aggressiveness.  The time to worry about making mistakes is in practice and in the film room.  To break out and become a playmaker, he needs to get to that point where he’s playing on instinct on game day.  He did a better job of this versus the Broncos, and it resulted in some good production.

I can sympathize with this because I had the same problem my first few years in the league.  When I came to Houston, a sports psychologist on Dom Capers’ staff by the name of Fran Pirozzolo told me,”They don’t pay you to be perfect, they pay you to make plays.”  That would be poor advice for some guys, but for somebody who worried exceedingly about making mistakes it was dead on.  It changed my game completely, and I made more plays that season as a 3-4 nose guard, a position that typically doesn’t pile up stats, than I had in any of my seasons in a 4-3.  Whitney needs to let it loose.



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