Backup safeties seized the spotlight by causing a pair of early turnovers as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-3 at home on Thursday.
With the second-team defense getting the start in the preseason finale, the 49ers backups made a strong impression against Phillip Rivers and the Chargers' offensive starters by giving up just three points all night.
The second defense's impressive performance came nine days after Vic Fangio stated he was looking to see the young 49ers safeties prove they could add depth to his defense.
C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson and Darcel McBath each responded.
All three had a hand in forcing two turnovers while Rivers was commanding the Chargers' starting unit.
"We felt good about forcing those turnovers," McBath said. "We harp on that in practice so it felt good to get to the game and carry it over. We were hoping to give up zero, but to give up only three points and put up the score that we did gives us good momentum going into the regular season."
Spillman, who spent his first NFL season in San Diego, stripped Pro Bowler Antonio Gates on what would have been a third-down conversion for 11 yards during the Chargers' first possession. Soon after, Robinson took his opportunity well by quickly picking up the loose football and bringing it back 22 yards to set up the 49ers offense on the San Diego 32-yard line.
"I just saw the ball on the ground and did my best to pick it up," said the rookie about the fumble recovery. "I didn't even see C.J. make that great play to knock the ball out of there. I was just running to the ball because I was planning on hitting Gates."
"When I saw the ball it surprised me, so I picked it up and tried to get to the house. That didn't work out, but it was still a great play."
Robinson didn't make it to the end zone, but his return to set up the offense with good field position. That quickly led to points as Colin Kaepernick needed just two plays to connect with Delanie Walker for a 32-yard touchdown pass, giving the 49ers an early 14-0 lead.
On the ensuing Chargers possession, McBath got in on the action by snatching a Rivers pass inside the red zone to stop what had been a 59-yard drive.
"We were in a cover-two on my side," McBath said in describing his pick. "I was just hovering over the receiver. I saw him breaking back out while Phillip was looking at him so I anticipated and just made the play."
McBath's first-quarter interception proved to be pivotal in halting the momentum the Chargers had started to gain on that drive.
San Francisco's second defense has been ball-hungry throughout the preseason as all four of the team's takeaways were caused by backups.
That fact was especially impressive on Thursday because both takeaways came against the Chargers starters.
"You don't go out there thinking about who that guy you are lined up against is," Robinson said. "You go out there saying, 'I'm going to ball, it doesn't matter who it is.' We have all been chosen to be here for a reason to get an opportunity to come in this league, so it doesn't matter who is across the ball. You can't think about the names of guys you go against you just have to play."
San Diego did not score until the Chargers turned a short field off a turnover into a 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. Even on that drive, San Diego could only muster a short run on first down and two incompletions.
Spillman continued to make great plays all night, totaling four tackles, which tied for second-most among San Francisco players.
Robinson and McBath each added a pass deflection on the night.
Spillman's interception followed Perrish Cox's example in wreaking havoc in the defensive backfield with the second string against his former team. Last week against the Broncos, Cox snagged his second interception of the preseason facing his former employersto continue the second defense's impressive turnover tally.
The young safeties were not the only ones making plays with the second defense. Linebacker Tavares Gooden led the team with six tackles, including a third-down sack in the second quarter.
Jim Harbaugh was especially impressed by Gooden's performance, but the linebacker held to his coach's philosophy by making it about the team.
"I couldn't have done it without my teammates," Gooden said. "Great defensive line play kept the offensive line off of me. They were able to fill the gaps and just go out there and have fun."
"I had my teammate's backs just like they had mine. Coaches told me I was going to play a little bit more this game … and I got to start. I didn't want to let them down so I came out there with a great week of preparation and played my best."
While preseason results don't count toward the playoff race, there is little doubt tonight's performance will serve as a confidence-builder for Gooden and the rest of the 49ers heading into the regular season.