A staple of the San Francisco 49ers' defense of the last three seasons has been its ability to get off the field on third down.
That trait was on display during a full-team session Tuesday when the starters took on the starters in a spirited 3rd-down drill.
With Colin Kaepernick at the helm, the offense went 0-4 on their 3rd-down attempts against the 49ers' talented defenders.
On the first play, Aldon Smith pushed left tackle Joe Staley into Kaepernick forcing coaches to blow the play dead. Then Kaepernick missed Stevie Johnson wide in a pass to the right. On the third play the coverage held and Kaepernick was unable to find an open target when he scrambled to the right and the play was blown dead again. And on the last play for the starters Kaepernick was pressured from his right and was unable to get a pass off.
In summation: four passing plays, one throw, no first downs.
But it wasn't a practice completely dominated by the defense. Minutes earlier in a two-minute drill a lapse along the defensive front caused the secondary to freeze. Kaepernick then found a wide open Michael Crabtree along the right sideline for a touchdown. Prior to that point, Kaepernick completed three straight throws - two to Anquan Boldin and one to Crabtree along the right boundary.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio didn't seem thrilled with the way his defense practiced despite the success it had during the 3rd-down period.
"We messed up too many things today, I think, and I need to go look at it and see exactly what it was," Fangio said. "A couple of them, I’m not sure what it was. But, we had some critical offside penalties. Gave up a deep ball that was, I think, related to the front more than secondary."
The defense was playing without four starters. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver were both out after leaving practice early Sunday. Defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have yet to participate in training camp.
Fangio didn't indicate the injuries to Brock and Culliver are anything that could keep either player out for a prolonged period.
"Just little nicks in that leg area that need a day or two rest it would take to get better," he said. This is Culliver's first week of practice since suffering his ACL tear during training camp last season.
Fangio also said Smith's absence stems from a combination of his offseason shoulder surgery and getting his typical time off.
McDonald, Fangio revealed, is dealing with a leg injury, although he doesn't believe it to be serious.
"Being prudent with it right now that he doesn’t aggravate it and make it worse," he said.
The veterans' absence has allowed for Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs to work with the first team.
The defense made two interceptions on the day, one coming from Chris Cook during 7-on-7s and the other from Chris Borland during full-team drills.
Cook picked off Josh Johnson as he was trying hit Brandon Lloyd deep down the middle of the field. The ball was badly under thrown. But it remains significant for Cook, who is still waiting to make his first career interception after playing four seasons in Minnesota.
Struggling to track the ball was a knock on Cook during that time, and Fangio said it's been a point of emphasis for him this offseason.
"[Secondary coach] Ed [Donatell] and [assistant secondary coach] Greg [Jackson] have worked with him a lot in that area in individual drills and trying to create game-like situations as much as you can in an individual period," Fangio said. "We’ve asked the quarterbacks to throw to him. So, I think they’ve done most of everything they can to help him along, and they’ll continue to."
Borland also picked off Johnson, although he wasn't in coverage. The former third-round pick was rushing the quarterback and caught the ball after it had been deflected by a defensive lineman.
Bruce Ellington made his practice debut Tuesday after being elevated from the active/non-football injury list Friday.
Ellington saw limited action on offensive drills but was first up when it came to fielding punts. The rookie receiver looks like the No. 1 option at returner after LaMichael James suffered a dislocated elbow in Sunday's practice that should sideline him for a month.
Following practice, the team released undrafted rookie quarterback Kory Faulkner in favor of offensive lineman Michael Phillip - who was claimed off waivers from the Dolphins.
Faulkner was struggling to get reps among the team's four other quarterbacks. The team had a more pressing need along the offensive line after releasing Fouimalo Fonoti earlier in the day. Fonoti left practice with an apparent left leg injury Sunday.
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