DENVER – Blaine Gabbert failed to convert on his only two third-down pass attempts.
And those plays, more than anything else, helped explain Chip Kelly’s assertion that Gabbert is giving him exactly what he wants from his leader on offense.
“He’s got a really good understanding of what we’re doing right now,” Kelly said following the 49ers’ 31-24 victory Saturday over the Denver Broncos in the second exhibition game for both teams.
In the first two exhibition games, Gabbert’s play has been up and down. But in six possessions with the first-team offense, he has yet to throw an interception or take a sack.
Gabbert appears to have the upperhand in the quarterback competition with Colin Kaepernick, who has not practiced since Aug. 10 due to arm fatigue. Kaepernick threw approximately 50 passes in pregame warmups and appears to be on target to return to practice on Monday.
“I watched him,” Kelly said of Kaepernick. “I think he’s gotten better and better each day. And we’ll just see. The biggest thing is how he responds, in terms of if there are any residual effects when he wakes up in the morning. I think he’s progressing, and we have a logical plan in place.”
Gabbert completed six of his nine passing attempts for 69 yards. He did not exactly light it up, but Kelly appears to be pleased with his quarterback’s decision-making in handling the blitz.
“I thought Blaine did a nice job of getting the ball where it needed to be,” Kelly said. “They brought a little bit of pressure early and at least he got rid of it and didn’t take the sack. I thought he put the ball where it needed to be, so he did a good job of managing his snaps when he was in there.”
The 49ers opened with a three-and-out that included a third-down incompletion in which Gabbert overthrew running back Carlos Hyde on the left side to avoid a sack.
“As a quarterback, it’s so crucial to avoid sacks,” Gabbert said. “Whatever you can do to get the ball out. There was a play we had on a third down. Carlos had a route to the left, rather than take a sack, just get the ball out of your hand.
“Sacks are a big momentum builder for the other team, especially their defense. A defense like Denver’s feeds off of sacks. Anything you can do to neutralize that, get the ball out of your hands quick, and get it into the receiver’s hands is going to help the offense run smoothly.”
On the next series, Gabbert threw short to tight end Garrett Celek on a third-and-7 play. Gabbert got rid of the ball quickly with pressure in his face. The pass completion picked up just five yards, leading to a Bradley Pinion punt. The play met Kelly's approval.
“We got pressure,” Kelly said. “Obviously, he has to throw it short of the first down. Some quarterbacks in that situation are going to hold it because they want to throw it farther. But now they’re going to take a sack. That’s part of being a smart quarterback.
“There’s sometimes that the play that’s called isn’t going to get it. You’re hoping that the guy catches it and breaks a tackle. But there’s other guys that hold onto the ball and just sit there and say, ‘No one was really open,’ and they take a sack. And now we’re in a worse situation. We have a good punter. Sometimes if it’s third and 14, you might not get 14, but if we can get half of that and get 7 more yards and Bradley can kick it a little farther, you can spin the field (position) a little bit.”
On Gabbert’s final series with the first-team offense, he completed passes of 17 yards to DeAndrew White and 19 yards to Vance McDonald. Hyde scored on a four-yard touchdown run.
“I think we improved as an offense as a whole,” Gabbert said. “We got the ball in the end zone. You can always start faster, but just getting into the flow of the offense and playing more this week.”
Through the first nine practices of training camp, Gabbert and Kaepernick split the first-team reps. Since Kaepernick has been out of action, Gabbert has taken all of those snaps. He said he feels more comfortable as he continues to learn the system.
“It goes back to the repetitions,” Gabbert said. “I try to take advantage, especially this week, going against a great team in Denver. Just make the most out of each opportunity I have to go out there. It definitely carried over into the game. Any time you can get a rep in practice and in games, you have to treat it like a piece of gold.”
The most surprising performance of the evening belonged to freshly signed Christian Ponder. The 49ers had 40 plays available in the game plan, and Ponder said he knew about half of those plays.
Ponder completed seven of eight passes for 86 yards to finish the game. Ponder rushed for a 22-yard touchdown and found Dres Anderson on a 30-yard touchdown pass on a play he had not practiced.
“I know he’s never run that play before we called it in the game,” Kelly said.
Said Ponder, “We drew it up on the sideline. It was a play that has already been installed, I just hadn’t learned it, yet. We saw something and made an adjustment and it worked out well.”
The 49ers signed Ponder on Tuesday to replace veteran Thad Lewis on the team’s 90-man roster. Rookie Jeff Driskel had a solid showing, too, completing six of seven attempts for 66 yards.