Niners stressing toughness over finesse
NAPA, Calif. -- This is what you would expect from a Mike Singletary training camp: plenty of no-nonsense hitting and hard work.
San Francisco 49ers players have donned the shoulder pads for all but maybe two practices this summer. They hit hard. They hit often. Their jerseys have no last names above the numbers. Watching a Singletary practice is like experiencing a flashback to the 1970s and 1980s, when camps were longer and bodies seemed more durable.
Already you can see the progress. The 49ers staged four practices over two days against the host Oakland Raiders here in Napa. The 49ers got the best of the hitting, which is understandable. The Raiders had about eight practices before donning the pads. You notice the hitting advantage in the run drills, where Frank Gore might overpower a Raiders linebacker or a 49ers blocker might get the best of a Raider in a one-on-one drill.
Niners head coach Singletary wants a single-minded toughness from his players. Early in camp, the 49ers had nutcracker drills that ended up knocking out linebacker Patrick Willis, offensive lineman David Baas and a couple other players. Willis is just getting back to practice. Baas should be back in a week, but a point was made.
That toughness came together in a red zone drill Wednesday morning. Cornerback Nate Clements intercepted a pass from JaMarcus Russell and shouted, "I love it when they can't compete." Three interceptions followed, and Clements yelled, "They can't compete with us, and they know it."
The 49ers are establishing a personality like their coach. The 49ers will be physical.
Here are five observations from 49ers camp (normally staged in Santa Clara, Calif.):
1. Barring a Tom Brady-like performance over the next two weeks, Alex Smith won't be able to beat out Shaun Hill at quarterback. It's pretty easy to see why. Singletary wants a quarterback who can manage the game and not make mistakes. That's Hill's strength. Hill doesn't have the arm strength or athletic ability of Smith. In practices, he might not throw the prettiest pass. But the guy is a gamer and has been a winner. His gift is the ability to see, read and anticipate what defenses are doing.
A switch goes off in his head in games, and Hill can make the right read at the right time. What surprised me is the physical problem he played with the past two seasons. He dislocated a joint at the top of his right index finger. A quarterback needs that index finger to generate a spiral. Hill had an index finger that bent with the shape of the ball. Without being to put extra pressure on the ball with that finger, Hill couldn't throw a quality long pass last season. Doctors grafted a small bone from another part of his hand to fix the problem, and now he can throw a longer pass.
As for Smith's health, his right shoulder is fine. What he didn't realize: Playing last season with a third-degree separation had more carryover pain than he realized. The pain is gone, and he's moving well and throwing the ball well. He's just not been consistent enough to beat out Hill so far.
2. No running back has a name as self-descriptive and fitting as Frank Gore. He doesn't try to run the ball. He tries to "gore" through a hole or "gore" through a defender. With the plan to go back to a basic running attack, Gore should return to the numbers he posted in 2006 -- 312 rushes for 1,695 yards.
Gore has been the main weapon for the 49ers for the past three years, but the 49ers got away from his style of power football. He's averaged 49 receptions during that three-year span. More than anything else, Gore loves the game of football and loves being the workhorse. He prides himself in how he runs the ball and is constantly asking for advice and instruction of how to keep improving. He lifts weights tirelessly in the offseason to prepare his body for the challenge. The 49ers expect him to have his greatest season in 2009.
3. Tight end Vernon Davis has been the ultimate tease for 49ers fans. The sixth pick overall in the 2006 draft, Davis has been an enigma. He can run a 4.38 40 despite being 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 253 pounds. Still, he rarely seems to be a target. Last season, he not only caught just 31 passes, but 49ers' quarterbacks also attempted fewer passes (42) to him in 2008 than he caught (52) in 2007.
Instead of pouting, Davis worked on his blocking and is now considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. This year, his receiving skills will show. From the looks of practice, Davis is one of the early reads in the passing attack, and that's understandable. The two most talented players on the 49ers' offense are Gore and Davis.
4. If the 49ers are going to be a winning team this season, Manny Lawson needs to get eight or more sacks. Last season, he had three. A former first-round pick, Lawson has regained most of the speed he lost from his ACL knee injury a couple of years ago. For the 49ers' defense to work, it has to pressure the quarterback. They had 30 sacks last season, but Singletary's 3-4 scheme is different from what the 49ers were trying to do under Mike Nolan.
Former head coach Nolan brought some of the Baltimore Ravens' creativity and had players coming from different spots on the field. If the 49ers struggled, Nolan would try to be more creative to make things work. Singletary wants his defenders to win the individual matchups. Defensive linemen have to beat their blockers, and the defense is set up for Lawson and Parys Haralson to get the sacks. Lawson hasn't worked on developing a second or third move yet, but he's showing the speed to get around blockers and put pressure on the quarterback.
5. Don't expect much out of wide receiver Michael Crabtree this season. The first-round draft pick's holdout continues with no end in sight. While the 49ers haven't given up on him yet, they can't count on the former Texas Tech star. He's not worn a uniform in practice coming off his February foot surgery. The front office still has no idea what kind of 40-yard dash time he has. Surprisingly, the 49ers' receiving corps can function decently without him. Isaac Bruce continues to be an ageless marvel running routes. Josh Morgan continues to develop as a rising talent at split end, the spot at which Crabtree is expected to play. Plus, it's not as if the 49ers expect to get the ball to their wide receivers often.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.