SI.com’s Niners Camp Postcard

SI.com annually spreads its football writers across the country to visit NFL training camp sites. This year, Jim Trotter made his way to Santa Clara to take a look at the Niners. Below are his thoughts on what he saw.

Three Observations

1. This is no place for the timid. Instead of easing his players into football shape after the four-month lockout — as many other coaches are doing — Harbaugh has his team getting after it. Saturday was the fifth time in six practices his players were in full pads, and they went full speed in goal-line, short-yardage and two-minute situations. Normally teams will hit and release in these drills because coaches are fearful of injuries. The 49ers, however, were allowed to tackle to the ground.

“He’s definitely going with the approach that there’s only one way to get in football shape, and that’s to do it,” says defensive end Justin Smith. “I really can’t say that this camp has been easier than in the past. We’ve been out on the field for three hours a day, banging. It’s been a physical camp.”

Harbaugh played 14 years in the NFL as a quarterback, so you’d think he has as good a feel as anyone on just how hard and how far he can push the players. Still, Saturday’s workout had the feel and the sound of an old-school college practice, not an NFL training camp. Maybe change is good for a franchise that has not been to the playoffs since 2002.

2. Patrick Willis is maniacal. The All-Pro middle linebacker has only one speed, and it’s search and destroy. During a goal-line drill, he tracked down Anthony Dixon off tackle and stripped him of the ball, which Ray McDonald picked up and returned for what would have been a touchdown; then, during a 9-on-7 pass drill, he read an underneath route and stepped in front of tight end Vernon Davis to intercept a pass from Alex Smith.

Seemingly each time you heard the crack of a hard hit, Willis was involved. He had the crowd oohing and aahing during a pass-protection drill when he blew up fullback Bruce Miller and running back Kendall Hunter on separate occasions. Willis has always treated practices like games, believing if he can accomplish something during workouts it will carry over to Sundays. Based on his play Saturday, he appears to be in mid-season form.

3. The passing game needs work. Yes, the Niners are learning a new (West Coast) offense while the defense is running what is fundamentally the same 3-4 system as years past. However, their struggles to complete passes (and protect the quarterbacks) went beyond that Saturday.

Injuries and personnel changes have hindered the ability of Smith and rookie QB Colin Kaepernick to develop a rapport with projected starting wideouts Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards. Crabtree will miss most or all of camp for the third straight year with a foot injury, and Edwards signed a free agent deal only last week. The rust on Edwards’ game was obvious. He dropped at least three passes that should have been caught. Afterward, running back Frank Gore attributed it to Edwards doing too much thinking while learning a new offense, but that should not be an excuse for a player of Edwards’ ability.

Clearly, Harbaugh is looking to put his fingerprints on this team. He will require this team to play hard every down; a welcome change from the previous regimes that we’ve had. The players are enjoying it as well. They trust the man and they want to play for him. Harbaugh has already won half the battle.

The Niners have lots of work to do during this training camp, and it looks like they are off to a right start. This is a team that won’t be able to fix all its shortcomings in a single off-season, but if they continue to prepare the way they have been, they will have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top half of their division.

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