SANTA CLARA -- The sod held up enough, and so did Colin Kaepernick after several hits in the 49ers' 21-7 exhibition win Sunday over the San Diego Chargers at Levi's Stadium.

Few complaints emerged afterward, however, about the sod or Kaepernick's repeated pummeling on that 2-day-old surface.

"To me, it's football, you're going to get hit," Kaepernick said.

The 49ers have one exhibition left to get their offense into gear before the Sept. 7 season opener at Dallas, and coach Jim Harbaugh said he'll start Kaepernick in Thursday's exhibition finale at Houston.

But Harbaugh wants better protection for his quarterback.

"We've got to work on that and be good in that area," Harbaugh said.

Not only was the temporary sod better than Wednesday's ripped-up grass, but the 49ers defense also showed marked improvement. That was relatively expected, considering that unit was nearly at full strength and things couldn't get much worse after being outscored 57-3 through two exhibitions.

Offensively, however, Kaepernick acknowledged the 49ers again played "below" an acceptable standard, vaguely blaming that on "execution." Asked if he's concerned, he replied: "No. It's the preseason."

Tight end Vernon Davis also tried to stay optimistic and said he's very excited about the coming season.

"It's all about finding that zone, and it's hard to find at times," said Davis, who made his first catch of the exhibition season (for 16 yards). "We have to keep it tight. If one guy or two guys fall off and are not on the same page, it can be disaster."


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Unexpectedly, it was the left side (the Pro Bowl side) of the offensive line that got breached, with left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati allowing Kaepernick to get hit three times. Kaepernick fumbled away the 49ers' second possession when he was stripped by Corey Liuget, who beat Iupati.

Kaepernick, as was the case in the two preceding exhibitions, failed to lead a touchdown drive. But he withstood four hits on Sunday's opening three series, and he safely exited after producing a field-goal drive in the second quarter.

Kaepernick finished 6 of 12 for 59 yards with one sack, one lost fumble and neither an interception nor touchdown pass. His final two passes were tipped incomplete. Through seven series this exhibition season, he produced two scoring drives -- two Phil Dawson field goals.

It took nearly 10 quarters of exhibition action before the 49ers scored their first touchdown, that coming on Blaine Gabbert's 6-yard pass to Vance McDonald 46 seconds before halftime. It was Gabbert's second series in relief of Kaepernick, and it was Gabbert's best action after two ignominious games. On that touchdown drive, Gabbert was 5 of 6 for 58 yards with two third-down conversions.

"He was getting the ball out and on time," Harbaugh said of Gabbert.

McDonald, a 2013 second-round draft pick, celebrated the first touchdown of his 49ers career with a powerful spike, and the 49ers took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

Dawson broke the 49ers' scoreless drought at Levi's Stadium when he connected on a 39-yard field goal, helping him atone for last week's two misses. Kaepernick was 5 of 5 passing on the series before his final two attempts were tipped incomplete, including a third-down attempt.

The Chargers failed to convert Kaepernick's strip-sack fumble into points. Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite stopped Ryan Matthews on a fourth-and-1 run at the 5-yard line for no gain. It was Wilhoite's biggest play this exhibition season as he's filled the starting spot of an injured NaVorro Bowman.

"We definitely weren't getting pushed around," Harbaugh said of his defense. "People were executing their assignment, and the defense played much better."

That defense helped keep the 49ers in control of their first win, which was secured by Glenn Winston's 27-yard touchdown run with 10:34 remaining. Two plays earlier, the 49ers lost rookie center Marcus Martin to a knee injury, potentially a major blow to the depth of an embattled line that remains without guard Alex Boone because of a contract dispute.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.

Online extra
Rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch coming on strong as pass rusher. www.mercurynews.com/49ers.