49ers

Injuries overshadow late 49ers rally past Cowboys in preseason opener

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AP

Injuries overshadow late 49ers rally past Cowboys in preseason opener

BOX SCORE

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ first exhibition game was a loss -- even if the scoreboard said something different.

The 49ers sustained several losses – the full extent of which was not immediately known – during their summer debut against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on Thursday night.

Four starters and two significant backups had their evenings cut short due to injuries

On a side note, third-string quarterback Nick Mullens rallied the 49ers' reserves with a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie Richie James with :18 remaining for a 24-21 victory over the Cowboys in the exhibition opener for both clubs.

But the victory may have come at a cost.

Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who sustained a season-ending torn pectoral last year before the 49ers even played an exhibition game, exited the game during the opening Cowboys possession with a hamstring injury.

The 49ers are counting on Smith to be a big factor, especially at the beginning of the season when Reuben Foster will be serving a two-game suspension. Rookie Fred Warner (chest) and Brock Coyle (hip) did not suit up for the game.

Linebacker Eli Harold left the game with a knee injury.

Tight end George Kittle sustained a right shoulder injury upon falling to the ground after being upended after a Jimmy Garoppolo pass down the deep middle of the field fell incomplete.

Starting defensive end Solomon Thomas and backup offensive tackle Garry Gilliam were diagnosed with concussions. And backup running back Matt Breida sustained a shoulder injury. Breida’s condition appeared to be the least concerning of the team’s injuries.

Afterward, coach Kyle Shanahan said Kittle and Breida with both "miss some time" with their shoulder injuries. Shanahan said he did not have any specific information about the extent of the injuries.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played the first nine snaps of the game, picking up two first downs while completing three of six passes for 34 yards. Backup C.J. Beathard completed 10 of 20 pass attempts for 181 yards with one interception.

Joe Williams, who was the fourth 49ers’ running back to enter the game, accounted for the team’s first touchdown with a 1-yard score in the second quarter. Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2017, is competing for a roster spot after spending last season on injured reserve with a foot injury.

Williams gained 27 yards on 11 carries, and was also stopped short on a two-point conversion attempt from the 1-yard line after Jeremy McNichols’ 1-yard scoring run late in the fourth quarter.

Williams’ biggest competition is Raheem Mostert, who made the club last season mostly for his play on special teams. Mostert gained 57 yards on eight rushing attempts, but also lost a fumble late in the third quarter.

Mullens completed 11 of 13 pass attempts for 141 yards with one touchdown and one interception while rallying the 49ers.

James was the team’s top slot receiver with Trent Taylor being held out of action. He caught a 21-yard pass from C.J. Beathard to set up Williams’ touchdown. James caught four passes for 46 yards, including the game-winning touchdown.

Another rookie receiver, Dante Pettis, shook free for a 53-yard reception on the first possession of the third quarter. That play led to a Robbie Gould field goal, cutting Dallas’ lead to 14-10 in the third quarter. Pettis was a second-round draft pick from Washington.

The Cowboys did not suit up running back Ezekiel Elliott, but quarterback Dak Prescott started and engineered a touchdown drive on his one and only series of the game against the 49ers’ starters.

The 49ers’ four-man pass rush did not get any pressure on Prescott. Left cornerback Jimmie Ward, playing in place of Richard Sherman, was running side-by-side with receiver Michael Gallup. But when Ward turned to look for the ball, Gallup gained 2 yards of separation before free safety Adrian Colbert could range over for help. The pass play went for a 30-yard touchdown.

49ers' improved pass defense evident during undefeated start to 2019

49ers' improved pass defense evident during undefeated start to 2019

A year -- and some roster tweaks -- have made all the difference for the 49ers' pass defense. 

San Francisco drafted Nick Bosa No. 2 overall this spring and signed edge rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander. With a much-improved front seven, the 49ers' standing pat in the secondary looks shrewed as the defense as a whole has coalesced into one of the NFL's best units. Their improvement defending opponents' passing offense is especially stark, as Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney observed Tuesday morning. 

Last season, the 49ers defense ranked 31st, 10th, 13th and 32nd in those aforementioned categories. San Francisco is second, second, third and third, respectively, in them headed into Week 7 this season. 

The 49ers' road ahead will become more difficult down the stretch, however. Of the eight remaining opponents San Francisco has not yet played this season, six rank in the top 15 in passing yards per game. Those teams haven't necessarily faced a defensive front as formidable as the 49ers', though, and San Francisco's dominance against Jared Goff and the Rams' Sean McVay-coached offense bodes well for the rest of the 49ers' schedule. 

The improvement is not just owed to the 49ers' defensive line or the team's offseason additions, either. Their depth has played a big role, too. Jimmie Ward missed the 49ers' first three games with an injury, but he arguably has been the defense's most important player in their last two wins. Ahkello Witherspoon has not played since Week 3, but San Francisco hasn't missed a beat with Emmanuel Moseley starting in his absence. 

[RELATED: Why gap between 49ers, Rams won't close after Ramsey trade]

The 49ers are clicking at every level of the defense, and it's possible they move up the NFL's statistical rankings in the next few weeks. They play lowly Washington in Week 7 and host Kyle Allen -- or Cam Newton -- and the Carolina Panthers in Week 8. Both teams rank in the bottom-third of the league. 

In other words, the 49ers might just be getting started. 

Jalen Ramsey trade: Jaguars deal cornerback to Rams for draft picks

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USATSI

Jalen Ramsey trade: Jaguars deal cornerback to Rams for draft picks

The 49ers really messed with the Rams' heads.

In the wake of Los Angeles' 20-7 loss to San Francisco in Week 6, the Rams first traded cornerback Marcus Peters to the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday, and then made an even bigger move.

The Jaguars traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Rams in exchange for two first-round and one fourth-round draft pick.

[RELATED: Why gap between 49ers, Rams won't close after Ramsey trade]

Ramsey is arguably the best cornerback in the game, and has widely been rumored to be on the trade block ever since getting into a sideline confrontation with Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone in Week 2.

The All-Pro cornerback got his wish and got out of Jacksonville. The 49ers will see him in Week 16 when the Rams visit Levi's Stadium.