This is what stood out to me during the 49ers-Broncos joint practice Thursday morning.
Disclaimer: Yesterday I focused on the 49ers offense, so today I focused on their defense. It was impossible to focus on both at the same time because they were playing on different fields.
1. LB Reuben Foster. The 49ers held Foster out of 11-on-11 team drills because he sprained the AC joint in his surgically-repaired right shoulder yesterday during practice. A team spokesman said Foster’s shoulder sprain is “mild” and “different from (his) previous injury.” But that doesn’t mean the two injuries aren’t related. The team spokesman wouldn’t know. So I emailed a doctor who works for the California Athletic Commission – Gary Furness – to find out his expert opinion about Foster’s shoulder injuries. “Most likely they are related,” Furness wrote. “Tearing a rotator cuff is going to do some damage to the other shoulder tissues, so they will be weaker. Also, the actual repair can do some damage to the AC ligaments. In other words, that shoulder will never be good as new.” Sounds like Foster’s torn rotator cuff inevitably will lead to other shoulder injuries throughout his career. Hopefully for the Niners, Foster’s future shoulder injuries will be minor, as his current one appears to be. According to Kyle Shanahan, Foster probably will play Saturday against the Broncos. Promising news, but also a risky move. I would give Foster at least 10 days off to protect him from further injuring his shoulder.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. LB Reuben Foster. Foster was a “limited participant” in practice. That means he went through drills with the other linebackers and played with the defense during 7-on-7s. During 11-on-11s, he watched from the sideline, which sounds innocuous. But during an 11-on-11 drills in the red zone, the 49ers defense fought the Broncos offense twice and, during the second fight, Foster ran from the sideline and blasted a player on the Broncos. Foster led with his injured shoulder and hit the Broncos player as hard as he could. I don’t fault Foster for entering the fight – it’s in his nature to hit people. That’s why the 49ers drafted him. He’s vicious. I fault the 49ers for having on the field in the first place. They should have kept him inside and protected him from himself. Luckily, Foster didn’t seem to hurt his shoulder any further.
2. DC Robert Saleh. Saleh lost control of his defense during the two fights this morning. Both times, the 49ers defense seemed to start the fight. Saleh allows – encourages? – his players to hit extremely hard, and to straddle and sometimes cross the line of what’s acceptable in practice. During the second fight, Saleh urged his players in a soft voice to stop fighting and gather around him. “Defense, over here,” he said probably 10 times. The defense ignored him and kept fighting.
3. NaVorro Bowman. The Niners defense lost another starting linebacker to a shoulder injury. Halfway through practice, Bowman ducked his head before he tackled a Broncos player, and immediately grabbed his right shoulder before jogging off the field. He was in a lot of pain. After practice, he said the injury was a stinger. He didn’t seem concerned about it.
4. Ray Ray Armstrong. Armstrong replaced Bowman in the starting lineup. And with Armstrong on the field, the run defense became significantly worse. He frequently filled the wrong gap and allowed long runs between the tackles. He also committed a holding penalty in man-to-man coverage.
5. Rashard Robinson. Robinson has the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen. To call them “bird legs” would be unfair to birds. His legs are twigs. And when he gives up a catch – as he did a few times today – he tends to grab one of his legs as if it hurts. As if he would have broken up the pass but an injured leg slowed him down. Today, he was grabbing his ankle. And every time trainer was about the run on the field to check him out, Robinson bravely gave a thumbs up and stayed on the field. After about the third time he did this, 49ers guest assistant coach and former legendary defensive tackle Warren Sapp shouted over to Robinson, “Why’re you so fragile?” This made the defense laugh. Even Robinson had to laugh.
6. Keith Reaser. Teams typically don’t game plan against each other for joint practices, because they aren’t trying to beat each other – they’re trying to evaluate their own players. But today, the Broncos definitely game planned to attack Keith Reaser. They wanted their quarterbacks to do well after they struggled on Wednesday, so all morning they went after the Niners’ weakest cornerback. If Reaser has to play at all during the regular season, the Niners will be in trouble.
1. NT Earl Mitchell. Earl Mitchell is the best nose tackle the Niners have had since I started covering the team in 2011. Not only is he strong and stout like Isaac Sopoaga and Glenn Dorsey, Mitchell also can run and chase down plays that aren’t directly in front of him. Today, he had a couple of tackles for loss, and another tackle for no gain. The Niners run defense will be good when he’s on the field.
2. DE Pita Taumoepenu. Taumoepenu didn’t do much earlier during training camp and OTAs, but today, he was one of the 49ers’ best edge rushers. He beat Broncos right tackle Donald Stephenson to record a sack, and on the next play he beat Stephenson again. This time, Stephenson grabbed Taumoepenu by the helmet and almost ripped it off. If Taumoepenu continues to play well, the Niners may consider trading a defensive end, such as Aaron Lynch. The Niners could trade Lynch to the Broncos, the Seahawks or the Bears. I’m sure Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would like to coach Lynch again. Those two worked together in 2014.
3. OLB Eli Harold. Harold was the new addition to the 49ers starting defense today. He played the “Sam,” or strong-side linebacker, in place of Ahmad Brooks. I assumed Harold’s presence in the starting lineup meant Brooks had the day off, but I was wrong. Brooks didn’t have the day off – he played Sam for the second-team defense all morning. I don’t know why the 49ers made this switch today. Maybe the switch meant nothing. Or maybe they were punishing Brooks for something. Or maybe they like Harold and want to see how he performs with the first-team defense. Harold has played better this offseason than he ever has played since the 49ers drafted him 2015. That’s because he finally fits the Niners defensive scheme. He didn’t fit the old 3-4 defense. Trent Baalke made Harold gain 30 pounds to play 3-4 outside linebacker. Now Harold has lot 15 pounds, and he’s explosive like he was in college. He’s someone to watch Saturday during the 49ers’ preseason game against the Broncos.