49ers observations

James C Black
Yahoo Sports

More 49ers: Mr. Smith goes back to the drawing board

OAKLAND, Calif. – Coach Mike Nolan has a model of what he wants a 49er to look like. At least on Sunday, the vision was a 6-foot-1, thickly built tailback playing with a passion that so many of his teammates lacked.

Michael Robinson didn't start the San Francisco 49ers' second preseason game against the Raiders, but he sure did finish things off. He had San Francisco's only score during the 23-7 defeat and made a few other plays that garnered attention, including lowering his head and driving back safety Hiram Eugene for an extra two to three yards at the end of a 16-yard reception.

"Michael has done well since the time he got here, throughout the minicamps, the OTAs (organized team activities) and all the way through training camp," Nolan said of the fourth-round draft choice. "I think he brings a level of competitiveness to the team. I think in time he will become a leader on our football team."

Nolan bases these high expectations not only on Robinson's work with the Niners but also on his track record in college. During his four-year career at Penn State, Robinson played quarterback, tailback and all three wide receiver spots (flanker, split end, slot), and he also returned punts.

The versatility was a major selling point for the Niners, and it was certainly on display against the Raiders. On the series in which Robinson scored, he had a 4-yard gain to the left, the aforementioned 16-yard reception, a 1-yard run up the middle and then the 6-yard touchdown catch on a swing pass from Trent Dilfer in which he bounced off a defender to score.

Robinson only gained nine yards on three carries, but he led the team with three catches for 29 yards.

"Whenever I'm out there, I want to give positive energy," said Robinson, the 2005 Big Ten offensive player of the year who also earned a pair of undergraduate degrees at Penn State.

If Sunday is any indication, the franchise has a sparkplug in waiting.

  • Maybe it was a positional thing, but fellow back Frank Gore was one of the few other 49ers singled out for his individual performance against Oakland. His 42 yards on seven carries had to be especially encouraging since San Francisco traded veteran Kevan Barlow to the Jets for a likely fourth-round pick before the game.

"I didn't need reassurance, but Frank does a good job all the time," Nolan said. "I've got a lot of confidence in Frank, as I do the other guys – as I do in Kevan."

Gore, who was limited to less than 10 carries or no action in 11 of the first 13 games last season, still led the franchise with 608 rushing yards, averaging an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. With his workload certainly expected to increase, and with Robinson and veteran Maurice Hicks also competing for carries, someone figured to be expendable. But Barlow questioned whether depth was the determining factor, telling Bay Area newspapers that "other reasons" got him traded.

  • When the 49ers drafted tight end Vernon Davis with the sixth overall pick in April, it was believed he would instantly become Alex Smith's go-to guy. That plan has seemingly changed since the start of camp.

Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who signed as a free agent in March, has overshadowed the rookie. Bryant and Smith have connected on a number of highlight-reel plays during the summer, the latest being a 46-yard pass that split a pair of defenders in the second quarter Sunday.

Davis' one catch for five yards against the Raiders forced Nolan to discuss other aspects of the former Maryland All-American's game.

"He just needed to continue to finish the things he does, finish blocks and finish routes," Nolan said of Davis.

  • As evidenced with the recent shipping of Barlow, Nolan hasn't been afraid to pull the trigger on a trade. If the right scenario presents itself, he'll start working the phones to bring in a proven pass rusher.

Lance Legree registered the team's first sack of the preseason against Oakland. But that takedown aside, the 49ers' pass rush has essentially been nonexistent so far.

The Raiders' quarterbacks – particularly Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter – had ample time to find their receivers throughout the game. Brooks wasn't sacked, completed 10 of 17 passes with a touchdown and, when he couldn't find a target, was able to make things happen with his legs.

Walter, the victim of Legree's sack, looked as if he had enough time to make his third and fourth reads on almost every drop back during the third quarter.

"It was a combination of both. Either, we weren't getting a pass rush or the rush was there, but we didn't have the coverage," said linebacker Manny Lawson, the second of San Francisco's two first-round picks this year. "We were in a slump."

That's not what Nolan wants to hear or see after his team ranked last in the league in overall and pass defense.

"We're going to start looking at our roster and things we can do to help generate some pass rush, not only scheme-wise, but also personnel-wise," Nolan said. "We've got to get the right players in the right places to give ourselves a chance."

James C. Black is the NFL editor for Yahoo! Sports.