It might not get as much of the fanfare as the nutcracker drill or provide the same boisterous noise of pads colliding during 9-on-7s, but wide receiver-defensive back one-on-one matchups have been an underrated highlight of camp so far.
If you want to see practice competition at its finest, take a closer look at the battles taking place between the two groups. Saturday morning's training camp session was proof positive that both sides are forcing the other to play at their highest potential.
"It's fun because it brings out the best in you. It makes you take your game to another level," said cornerback Karl Paymah, who signed with the 49ers during free agency.
The Faithful fans who attended the open morning practice saw all too well how the drill got the competitive juices flowing. In a matter of minutes, fans saw receivers beating defensive backs for touchdowns and defensive backs doing whatever necessary to break up the passes headed their way.
On one occasion, safety Curtis Taylor found himself in the front row of the adjacent bleachers after he completely sold out on a play, trying to come up with a pass breakup.
Taylor's effort might not have been appreciated by the fans because they tend to cheer for the offense, but it resonated with his teammates.
"We're pretty much happy when we shut down the crowd," Paymah said. "If we get a pick or a breakup, we get a big, 'Ahhhhhh,' from the crowd – the sound of disappointment. If you get a pick to the house that's the only time they'll cheer for you."
The defense came up with one interception in the drill when cornerback Tarell Brown broke on Brandon Jones' comeback route and picked off the pass. The crowd applauded, but it was not nearly as loud as their eruption on touchdown grabs by Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Dominique Zeigler and tight end Vernon Davis, who ran routes against the defensive backs too.
But the battles within the battle don't only exist between the two sides of the ball – it's within their own position groups as well. If one receiver sees another receiver make a play, they feel obligated to make just as good of a catch if not better.
"It's very competitive," rookie wide receiver Kyle Williams said. "It's just one of those things you have to go out there and improve because we have some beasts out there. It's just a matter of improving every single day."
Like many of his teammates, seeing all the play-makers on the 49ers offense showcase their abilities has inspired Williams to pick up his play. He pays close attention to all of the receivers on the roster and believes each offer something different to the team.
"I watch [Michael] Crab[tree]'s play-making ability, and Josh [Morgan] is one of those guys who does everything right. You want to run your routes off of his routes. I try to take a chunk from every one of those guys and apply it to my own game."
Notes and Quotes
Chilo Rachal doesn't have his own television show just yet, but the third-year guard debuted his "Big Give" on Saturday by showering fans with gifts after practice. Rachal tossed out gloves, cleats and a 49ers backpack to the crowd of fans lined up for autographs. "That's just material stuff and I'm not too worried about it," he said. "I always want to give back to the fans. I'm tired after a hard practice, but I still have time to show consideration to our fans. Some people drive far just to come watch practice, so I wanted to make sure I had people leaving with something special."
Alex Smith took the podium on Saturday and spoke mostly about his continued mastery of the 49ers offense. Smith fielded questions about his own development and was asked point-blank if he considers himself a "game manager." Smith's response: "No. You look at any great quarterback and I think any great offense and this whole game manager thing, it's not the quarterbacks. The quarterbacks that are in the Super Bowl, the quarterbacks that are in the Pro Bowl are not the quarterbacks that are doing the extraordinary things. They are the quarterbacks that are doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well."
Zeigler had arguably the best period during wide receiver-defensive back one-on-one. His diving catch in the front corner of the end zone closest to the fans earned quite possibly the loudest applause of the morning. Plays later, the wideout beat Taylor with a stutter-go route for another touchdown down the opposite sideline. Zeigler's play-making ability has caught the eye of many in camp so far, including his teammates. "Zig is probably one of the guys I look at the most and try to pattern my routes off of," Williams said. "He's so smooth. He's one of those guys who does everything right too. If you can follow in those footsteps, you can make some plays."
The best play of the morning session took place in 7-on-7 work and it involved the ever-growing 11-85 connection. Smith (11) found Davis (85) 30 yards down the right hash marks for an amazing leaping catch over Michael Lewis' coverage from the safety position.
Injury UpdateOutside linebackers Ahmad Brooks (rib contusion) and Travis LaBoy (concussion) along with wide receiver Scott Long (hamstring) sat out of practice. Receiver Brandon Jones pulled a hamstring midway through practice and sat out the rest of the session.