SAN FRANCISCO - There would be no Candlestick Comeback for the Vikings. Too many early defensive lapses led to too big a hole. Which means the preseason opener went into the books as a 17-6 road loss to the 49ers.
Or maybe, with San Francisco's 260 rushing yards, it should be classified as a 17-6 road grading.
Meaningless result? Maybe.
Yet for three hours Friday, we had glimpses into what 2012 might provide -- hints of hope mixed with evidence of obvious deficiencies.
For those looking for positive signs out of the Vikings first-team offense, those surfaced early.
On the first two possessions, the Vikings produced two scores.
Christian Ponder's first pass of the night? A 52-yard completion to Stephen Burton.
And it wasn't just a decent throw and a good catch. Ponder also had plenty of protection, given enough time to look past his first read -- Jerome Simpson on a hook route -- then able to recognize that San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson had been sucked into coverage on tight end Kyle Rudolph.
That completion, the Vikings' biggest play all night, led to a 39-yard Blair Walsh field goal.
"Stevie B. was wide open on the post," Ponder said. "He made a great catch. I wish I had put it out [further] and let him run under it. It could have been a touchdown. But it was a good first passing play."
Meanwhile, running back Toby Gerhart showed off his trademark power running, picking up 31 yards on five carries. That included a 16-yard burst that led to Walsh's second field goal.
And Rudolph? He made two catches for 22 yards, producing a pair of first downs as the offense totaled 118 first-quarter yards.
"Obviously we'd rather come out with touchdowns rather than two field goals," Ponder said. "But I felt we moved the ball pretty well against a good defense. A lot of positives."
So what about the defense?
Two drives. Two touchdowns.
That's how San Francisco put its foot on the gas to take control early.
The 49ers gained 169 total yards on their opening two possessions, reaching the end zone both times.
With Antoine Winfield, Kevin Williams and Jared Allen all sitting out, the Vikings defense was far from full strength. Coach Leslie Frazier opted to give his veterans the night off both to eliminate the risk of injury and to give other players a longer look.
Then starting nose tackle Letroy Guion left the game on the first series because of a posterior cruciate ligament injury in his knee. Guion didn't return.
Still, the 49ers' first drive was an effortless 12-play march, during which they chewed up 73 yards on the ground. On the second play, with Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford overrunning the play, San Francisco's Rock Cartwright was off for 19 yards.
Six plays later, Mistral Raymond took a bad angle in pursuit of Brandon Jacobs, and the result was a 23-yard gain.
Four plays after that, 49ers receiver Brett Swain scored the game's first touchdown, a 4-yard reception in which he badly beat Vikings cornerback Chris Carr. Quarterback Alex Smith put a back-yard lob into Swain's belly, and that was that.
On San Francisco's next series, backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick broke free for a 78-yard score on the second play.
By night's end, San Francisco had 412 total yards.
"I can't say we were missing tackles. That wasn't it," Frazier said. "Maybe we weren't in our gaps like we should have been -- just from looking at some of the pictures. And they did a pretty good job of sealing some people off with some of the things they were doing blocking-wise."
Ponder's night was hard to gauge. After that deep pass to Burton, he went 3-for-8 for 28 yards. Yet his decision-making was sound. On the opening drive, on third-and-7 from the San Francisco 21-yard line, Ponder was flushed from the pocket. Yet rather than force the issue, he fired a ball at Gerhart's feet and let Walsh do his thing.
Ponder had another shrewd throwaway from the 49ers 8 on the Vikings' next series. He also had incompletions to Burton, Michael Jenkins and Simpson that probably should have been caught.
Backup quarterback Joe Webb did little in the middle two quarters to ignite the offense. Webb was given five possessions of work yet completed only four of 11 passes for 20 yards. His two rushing attempts produced only 9 yards.
Now it's back to Mankato. And with four weeks until the regular season begins, Friday provided a reminder. So many questions remain. Few were answered at Candlestick Park.
Dan Wiederer • firstname.lastname@example.org