TOP OF THE DAY
The 49ers practiced on their shiny new artificial turf field for the first time in training camp Thursday, and they weren't alone during red zone and goal-line drills. The team was joined by a crew of four NFL officials who were on hand to watch over practice and give the team an idea how new rules will be interpreted and called on the field in 2006. The officials remained in the background and did not throw flags - as they have during previous camp visits - but they did let players know when they were committing infractions that would be penalized. As in recent years, defensive backs probably will be the players most affected by the new regulations. "The rules, I guess, have been taken toward an offensive benefit," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "It's fair for everyone - it's not fair offensively and defensively, but for all the team's it's fair. They can make the rules any way they want; 32 teams have to go by them. But it's difficult to play defensive back in the NFL, more than it has ever been, because the rules don't help you a lick. They're always trying to take something away from you. In doing so, you have to be able to teach those guys how to play because that's what helps you teach technique - what are the rules, what can I do, what can't I do - and then you teach off of that." That said, the 49ers seem to be teaching their secondary members the best that they can, because the officials were relatively quite during Thursday's session.
The morning practice was devoted extensively to red zone and goal-line situations, and there was some live hitting during the latter. Niners coaches let the offense and defense square off from the 2-yard line on 10 consecutive plays, with the defense finishing with a 6-4 advantage - six times defenders kept the offense out of the end zone. Actually, if you take away two botched snaps by the offense - one by Trent Dilfer and another when Frank Gore attempted to take a direct snap with quarterback Alex Smith in shotgun formation - the competition ended in a 4-4 tie. Smith scored the first touchdown, finding the corner of the end zone on a nice misdirection bootleg rollout. Kevan Barlow and Michael Robinson also squeezed in for touchdowns, but the most impressive score came when Maurice Hicks took a handoff and vaulted high in the air from the 2-yard line before landing atop a tangle of bodies just over the goal line. Barlow and Gore each were stopped at the 1 on other plays, and linebacker Jeff Ulbrich had perhaps the most impressive defensive stop of the session when he stuffed Hicks short of the goal line after the tailback had caught a play-action pass from Smith at the 1.
The visit by officials wasn't just a one-day gig. The crew addressed the team as a whole on the new rules Thursday evening and will work at practice through the team's scrimmage on Saturday, which concludes the first stage of training camp. The 49ers, who had a one-hour special teams-only practice Thursday afternoon, will have two full-squad practices Friday leading up to the scrimmage.
T.J. Slaughter isn't exactly a name that jumps out at you among prominent NFL linebackers, but the seventh-year veteran is making plays, attracting attention and maybe even earning himself a roster berth in the wide-open competition for backup slots at linebacker. Slaughter was particularly impressive Thursday, diving in front of Gore to slap down a pass in the end zone on the final play of goal-line drills, then later stepping in front of the passing lanes to intercept a Trent Dilfer throw. "Most everybody used to consider me a run-stopper, but I've been working on my pass coverage hard because I don't like to be questioning anything I do, and that's what I lack," Slaughter told SFI on Thursday. "So in my offseasons, I've really been training on my pass coverage and it has improved. And I think just my maturity - I've been so over-anxious, and just being able to relax has helped me be a better cover guy." Slaughter has 229 tackles and two sacks but just one interception in his previous six NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, where 49ers coach Mike Nolan worked with him in 2003-2004 when Nolan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator. Like every newcomer on the San Francisco roster, Slaughter has been trying to make an immediate impression in training camp. "The coaches here know me, but you still have to come in and perform each year," Slaughter said. "What you did last season don't matter. What you did the season before don't matter. You always have to come in and make an impression and make them know that you're still that guy, a guy that they can count on, a guy that they can put in the starting lineup and make plays for them. So every season I look at it as another job interview." Slaughter's interview is going pretty well so far. He has played both inside and outside linebacker and that versatility should fit in well with the 49ers as they look to bolster their 3-4 scheme after the offseason exodus of starting outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Slaughter also has a reputation as a standout performer on special teams, and he gives the Niners a proven veteran who is more accomplished in the NFL than several others that are vying for the position. Slaughter, who has 31 starts in his 68 career games, might be best suited for inside linebacker but he can play all four positions in the 3-4. "I used to be a starter, so I still look at myself as a starter," Slaughter said. "I'm just here trying to help this team win the best way I can and fit in the best way they need me to. I don't limit my ability. I can do anything. I don't limit myself to anything - I just try to get in the best way I can. They've got a great group of linebackers with Jeff (Ulbrich) and Derek (Smith), and I just want to come join the squad."
PLAY OF THE DAY
Quarterback Alex Smith, having another strong practice session, was picking apart the secondary all morning as the team went to 7-on-7 red-zone drills late in practice. Attempting to find rookie tight end Delanie Walker over the middle on a post route, Smith fired a strike that instead found the hands of safety Tony Parrish, who made a fine read and broke on the pass the second it left Smith's hand, an indication that the ninth-year veteran is indeed returning to form after missing the final seven games last year with a leg injury.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"When they're changing these rules and you damn near can't touch 'em - you know, put ribbons in the wide receivers' hair just to keep them safe - that's tough," --- Nolan talking about new NFL rules that favor wide receivers at the expense of defensive backs.
NEWS AND VIEWS
--- Marcus Hudson is delivering some heavy licks from the safety position and is continuing to look like a rookie who not only will make the team, but could figure into the mix in secondary coverage packages.
--- Tight end Vernon Davis displayed his ability while making a tremendous sideline catch on an overthrown missile by Smith, leaping into the air to grab the hot pass and then coming down with both feet down inches from the sideline.
--- This is the current pecking order at punt returner: Rookie Brandon Williams, second-year veteran Rasheed Marshall and second-year vet Otis Amey. The latter two guys got their chance last year. Now it's time for Williams to get his.
--- If sending kicks high and deep is what counts in punting, then newcomer Tom Rouen clearly out-kicked incumbent Andy Lee while the spotlight was on both punters Thursday.
--- Draw your own conclusions, but here was a two-play sequence during team drills: Antonio Bryant ran a crisp post route and snagged a Smith delivery in front of Walt Harris. On the next play, Smith looked toward Bryant on the other side of the field, but Shawntae Spencer jumped in on a slant route and batted the ball away before it could get to Bryant.
--- The running back corps was forced to stay after practice and run some sideline-to-sideline sprints, and it was quite a sight to see burly offensive linemen Jonas Jennings and Larry Allen running behind them. Make that, jogging behind them. Make that, way behind them.
--- Rookie Parys Haralson is showing some nice pop and athletic ability, and appears to be making a smooth transition from defensive end to 3-4 linebacker. It's looking like he has the necessary range to play the position.
--- Linebacker Derek Smith was limited in practice due to a quad strain that occurred Wednesday. "Smith played some with a thigh contusion, but then I pulled him out," Nolan said. "As we got into the team things, I wanted to pull him out. It wasn't as if he complained; I just said, ‘You're out.'"
--- Defensive lineman Jerry DeLoach sprained a medial collateral knee ligament during goal-line drills and is expected to miss a few days of action. He is unlikely to participate in Saturday's scrimmage.
Camp encapsulated: August 3
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