HOUSTON – Rookies, welcome to the league.
Nearly two dozen members of the San Francisco 49ers were able to play their first snaps in the National Football League on Saturday night.
Preseason or not, it was a valuable experience for many young players, including Australian rugby league star Jarryd Hayne, who became a Twitter trending topic (in San Francisco and his home country) after a 53-yard carry in the first half of a 23-10 loss to the Houston Texans.
Big plays, a key defensive stand and notable playing time on special teams were some of the highlights of the preseason Week 1 matchup.
Here's what we learned from the road loss in Houston.
Short-yardage defense shines in the first quarter
There's no doubt that goal-line offense will be a topic of discussion on next week's episode of "Hard Knocks."
The reality TV show covering the Texans will surely chronicle an impressive eight-play sequence in which Houston's offense was unable to cross San Francisco's goal line.
After giving up an 8-play, 87-yard scoring drive capped by a 58-yard Brian Hoyer touchdown pass to wide receiver Cecil Shorts III, which was also followed by a 2-point conversion to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the 49ers responded on defense with their backs against the wall.
The Texans picked up two first downs on their second possesion and added a 32-yard Alfred Blue run to get down to San Francisco's 12-yard line.
Houston was in position to score, but solid plays from nose tackle Mike Purcell, inside linebacker Shayne Skov, free safety Eric Reid and many others helped keep the home opponents out of the end zone. With the ball on San Francisco's 1-yard line, running back Jonathan Grimes was met for no gain by rookie linebacker Eli Harold and veteran safety Antoine Bethea on third down.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien waited patiently after a TV timeout before electing to go for it on fourth down. His team was again denied when Reid and cornerback Shareece Wright converged on Blue to stop him short of the goal line.
The opening drive by San Francisco's defense, sans NaVorro Bowman, wasn't the desired result but the second-drive response was something they can rally around in the film room this week.
Jim Tomsula takes careful approach with veterans
In addition to Bowman, the 49ers coach let it be known that tight end Vernon Davis and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett would join 11 other players who would not play against the Texans.
Of the key starters who did see action, it was a relatively short night. Colin Kaepernick completed 1-of-3 pass attempts for 14 yards. San Francisco's signal-caller nearly connected on a 50-plus yard deep ball to new target Torrey Smith. Ultimately, the 49ers were forced to punt and Blaine Gabbert finished up the rest of the first half. Left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Erik Pears played one series apiece as well. Starting running back Pierre Garçon carried the ball one itme for three yards.
On defense, nose tackle Ian Williams and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks saw action on the first drive only. They were replaced by Purcell and Harold, respectively.
Tomsula's careful monitoring of veteran reps in training camp clearly carried over to NRG Stadium. It was a smart approach, especially for a club with many first- and second-year contributors.
Gameday is no longer foreign to Hayne
The Australian import made a positive impression in Houston.
Hayne took his second carry of the night for a 53-yard gain behind outstanding blocks by rookie left tackle Patrick Miller and fullback Bruce Miller. The second-quarter rush helped set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to tight end Garrett Celek.
Hayne led all rushers in the first half with 63 yards on five carries. He did not carry the ball in the second half and finished the game averaging a game-high 12.6 yards per carry. In addition to his rushing role, Hayne had an active night against the Texans on special teams. He averaged 12 yards on his two punt returns and posted a 33-yard kick return to open the second half.
Like all of San Francisco's rookies, the running back will have plenty of valuable game tape to learn from. He had a short pass knocked out of his hands by Texans inside linebacker Mike Mohamed, but he was able to pick up an inside bitz on a first-half throw from Gabbert.
Hayne's next game, his second in his NFL career, figures to be another major opportunity to further his development.
Several defensive backs, others have consistent special teams roles
The 49ers kick-off coverage and return teams featured a few consistent names.
Cornerback Marcus Cromartie, safeties L.J. McCray, Craig Dahl and rookie Jaquiski Tartt, linebacker Corey Lemonier, tight ends Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier all lined up on kick cover and return against the Texans.
Cromartie and McCray also received the first chance to cover punts as San Francisco's perimeter gunners.
It's quite early in the process to award roster spots based on a Week 1 preseason matchup, but it's interesting to see which players were given the first chance to play on special teams against Houston.
Cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker, Carrier, fullback trey Millard, McCray, Tartt, McDonald, Lemonier, Cromartie and Dahl joined veteran Phil Dawson.
Cromartie, Lemonier, McCray, Tartt, Dahl, Harold, Celek, McDonald, Carrier, wide receiver Quinton Patton joined rookie returner DeAndrew White.