49ers vs. Raiders: Ten things to watch

It's the Oakland Raiders on tap Saturday in the 49ers' preseason home opener at Candlestick Park, and there's always plenty to keep your attention when these two neighborhood rivals get together each summer for the annual Battle of the Bay. There also is plenty to keep your attention surrounding the home team, and here are 10 primary items to keep an eye on in the Niners' quest to make progress.


Harbaugh's BOTB debut

They may seem a bit insignificant in the overall scheme of things, particularly considering the job ahead of him to resurrect the 49ers, but Jim Harbaugh will be setting a certain tone for his team and also has something to prove to the guys on the other sideline. The Battle of the Bay – even if it's only an exhibition game – means something in the San Francisco Bay Area, where pro football rules in the public consciousness. Both the 49ers and Raiders have been bad for a decade, but both are now on the rise with new head coaches, and it's an open battleground for superiority of an entire region – both on the field and in the minds of millions of hardcore fanatics. And, it just as easily could have been Harbaugh coaching the Raiders instead of the 49ers in this one. Harbaugh began his full-time coaching career as an entry-level assistant with the Raiders in 2002, and there was speculation he was being considered for the Oakland job this year before Al Davis dragged his feet and Harbaugh was corralled by the 49ers. When asked recently what he learned from his two seasons with the Raiders, Harbaugh replied, "How to coach," and also talked about "a thousand things that I learned over there." Now over there will really be over there – as in the enemy sideline.

Taking babysteps… or any steps

If Alex Smith and the first-team offense go three-and-out on their first four possessions, like they did during last week's exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, then it's fair to start worrying about this offense, and particularly where it is going under the direction of Smith. In actuality, Smith and the first-teamers deserve a pass for their showing in last week's debacle because of various, but legitimate, circumstances. Now that they've had another week to work on it, they must show progress is being made. And that is likely to come down to Smith, who has had a fine week in practice and seemingly strengthened his grip on the starting position. Smith needs to come out strong in the preseason home opener and assemble a few nice drives, because fans will be howling at the first sign of a three-and-out.

Three more quarters of Kaepernick?

Anybody else think Harbaugh is trying to cram as much game experience as possible into Colin Kaepernick's early NFL resume? The rookie QB played almost three full quarters last week against the Saints, seeing more than 40 snaps of action. Even with three other quarterbacks now on the depth chart behind him, don't be surprised if Kaepernick continues to hog the snaps behind center once Smith is out of the game. When asked this week about the possibility of Kaepernick again playing most of the game, Harbaugh replied, "We'll see. He may or may not play as much as he did last week, but hopefully a good amount. I want to see him get at least a couple of quarters, at least two quarters and fourth quarter." Let's see now… would two quarters and a fourth quarter add up to three quarters again for Kap? Stay tuned.

Shifting right

Jonathan Goodwin may not start at center, with Adam Snyder continuing to get that duty, but the Niners will want to start making the inevitable shift to Goodwin as their main man in the middle of the O-line. That move figures to start gaining steam against the Raiders, allowing Snyder some time to slide over and get some game action with the front-line units at right guard, where the team still is trying to light a fire under incumbent starter Chilo Rachal. Harbaugh showered Rachal with praise this week and now the fourth-year veteran must show in a game situation that he actually deserves it. Rachal could use a commendable performance here to solidify his shaky standing. And then, when we look further right, could recent sluggish play on the edge of the line actually be…

A boon for Boone?

Anthony Davis got off to a decent enough start in training camp, but he has looked stuck in the mud since getting whipped during the preseason opener at New Orleans, and there are some concerns about the progress he is making at right tackle. This has opened the door of opportunity for Alex Boone, who has had no such problems during a strong summer performance as Joe Staley's backup at left tackle. Boone is now getting some work at right tackle as San Francisco coaches start creating some contingency options along the offensive line. And consider this: When Harbaugh took a moment to praise individual offensive linemen this week, he mentioned Boone's name – but not Davis' name. Will Davis' struggles be a boon for Boone? If you see Boone go in at right tackle instead of left tackle when he gets his first work tonight, take that as a sign he's getting a serious look at least as a temporary replacement for Davis.

Close battle at ROLB

It's getting close to that time when the 49ers want to start identifying their starters at unsettled positions, and while Parys Haralson has been the team's regular starter at right outside linebacker the past three seasons, he's hardly settled in as the starter this year. Not with impressive rookie Aldon Smith riding his back. Smith is making it be known that his immense talent belongs on the field, and Haralson needs to start making more plays to hold him off, like, immediately.

Double dippers

Look for rookies Bruce Miller and Colin Jones to wind up in strange places, or at least strange positions, against the Raiders. At least they'll be wearing the same color jersey all night. The two youngsters were seen switching between red and white jerseys earlier this week during practice, bouncing back and forth between offense and defense as coaches attempt to find where each player fits best in their quest to make the final roster. Miller, the seventh-round draft pick who was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year as a defensive end at Central Florida, played some fullback, tight end, outside linebacker and defensive end this week. Jones, an athletic sixth-round pick who played safety in college at Texas Christian, played safety and wide receiver this week, and even saw a few passes come his way, which he dropped. Wherever Miller and Jones play, expect to see them selling out, because both are that kind of player, and both need that kind of effort to make the team.

Checking out the ‘Stick

For those getting their first 2011 visit to Candlestick Park – be it in person or through a TV monitor – there are several new improvements to absorb as the Niners try to keep the old concrete bowl a happening place for fans while they point toward the opening of a new stadium in Santa Clara for the 2015 season. The top attraction is the new 49ers Museum, located near the East side of the stadium, which is available for free tours for fans. The Niners will actually move all five of the team's Super Bowl trophies to the ‘Stick on game days from their usual home in a showcase at the team's Santa Clara headquarters. The museum also features a timeline for franchise historical moments, an evolutionary display and video monitors showing highlights of seminal moments in 49ers history. Fans also can find a women's-only merchandising store, a new "kids zone" recreational area, 49ers partner booths and a new fan text messaging system to improve in-game security. And when the game's over, the team is even offering a rewards program to fans who recycle in the stadium's interior parking lots.

Wide open at wideout

Michael Crabtree, seen this week walking without a limp or a protective boot on his foot, will be returning soon, meaning everyone else will be falling down a notch in the pecking order at wide receiver. Some can't fall much farther if they expect to be – or remain – in the WR rotation this season. One of those guys is Ted Ginn, who sure looks good when he's streaking clear behind defensive backs, but doesn't look so good when he's dropping passes with an alarming regularity, just like he did last year. With Kyle Williams making an early statement in last week's exhibition opener – mainly, that he can catch on the run and then turn and scoot up the field quickly – Ginn has some serious competition for playing time now, and so does Joshua Morgan, who may see his starting assignments coming to a close by the end of the preseason. Rookie Ronald Johnson and young vet Lance Long also are in the mix, so expect all these receivers to continue jockeying for depth chart positioning because it's going to be Crabtree, Braylon Edwards… and then everybody else once the season begins.

Rock 'em, sock 'em safeties

The Battle of the Bay will be the first pairing of Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson as San Francisco's starting safeties, a tandem that promises to be an enticing collaboration for years to come. The 49ers are in the midst of change and uncertainty at the cornerback positions, so Whitner and Goldson will be taking the lead in the team's secondary this year, and how well they work together will be a major key in the unit's success. Whitner and Goldson can both bring the wood, so it will be dangerous for opponents when those two headhunters are on the prowl, with the Raiders getting the first taste of that. Whitner looks like an ideal fit at strong safety in coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 defensive system, but Goldson must show that he can live up to the responsibilities of free safety, which won't allow him as many freelance opportunities and will include more coverage requirements than Goldson has had previously with the 49ers.


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