The 49ers offense has been getting into a better rhythm with each practice, and that was apparent in red-zone drills Wednesday when Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington, Dres Anderson, DiAndre Campbell and Bruce Miller all caught touchdowns.
The best grab may have come from Smith who, during a 7-on-7 red-zone drills, caught a difficult pass from quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the corner of the end zone and managed to get both feet down in bounds. Smith is by far the most accomplished receiver of the 49ers’ group, and he has been its most prominent pass catcher during this week’s sessions. Among his receptions Wednesday was a deep ball down the sideline from Gabbert, the second straight day that duo has hooked up for a long gain.
The second-best play happened in the opposite corner of the end zone during the team red-zone period. Lined up on the 5-yard line, Gabbert dropped back and threw a perfect pass to Ellington, who was mobbed by the other offensive starters after the catch.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was noticeably sharper on Wednesday than he was Tuesday when he was still shaking off some rust. His best pass of the morning was a dart in the back of the end zone to Miller, who couldn’t hang onto the pass. Miller also let the next pass from Kaepernick slip through his grasp. Later in the drill, however, Miller was wide open in the back of the end zone and Kaepernick hit him with a short toss.
As was the case Tuesday, Kaepernick did everything aside from 11-on-11 situations. Despite the fact that he is taking part in seven-on-seven drills, he is still shadowing the other quarterbacks during their repetitions. That is, he seems to be making up for his lack of 11-on-11 repetitions by getting as many mental repetitions in 7-on-7 drills as possible.
Anderson was the 49ers’ most prized undrafted rookie last year but spent the season on an injury list. He’s found himself covered by this year’s fourth-round pick, Rashard Robison, which has led to some good battles. In one early, 7-on-7 sequence, Robinson knocked away a pass that was intended for Anderson. On the next play, Anderson caught a mid-range pass in front of Robinson. He also had a reception during team rills.
A receiver who has not been prolific is DeAndre Smelter, a 2015 draft pick who sat out his rookie season while recovering from an ACL tear. Smelter does not appear to be going full speed and often requires maintenance from trainers – stretching, etc. – on the sideline. Coach Chip Kelly said the issue was not related to Smelter’s knee. “He has been just nagging a little bit, but I wouldn’t call it an injury,” he said.
Kelly noted that sometimes the offense may appear to be getting the upper hand on the defense because the defensive players aren’t permitted to hit their opponents and pull up short of doing so. “I think if you watch probably the best guy in the secondary is Antoine Bethea,” Kelly said. “He’s had ample opportunity to probably separate a guy from the ball, but just kind of pulls out of it because we don’t have pads on.”
An example occurred Wednesday on a pass from quarterback Thad Lewis to tight end Je’Ron Hamm, who grabbed the ball in front of linebacker Ahmad Brooks. It looked like a nice completion. But Bethea was closing in quickly from the secondary and likely would have collided with Hamm – and possible Brooks – just as the ball was arriving if contact were permitted.
The 49ers switched up their offensive line compositions a bit. Erik Pears and Brandon Thomas had been getting the bulk of the snaps at right tackle and right guard during OTAs. On Wednesday, Trent Brown and Andrew Tiller were in those roles. Pears rotated with Joe Staley at left tackle, possibly because the 49ers are eying Pears as their swing tackle this year.
Rookie Joshua Garnett seemed to get most of his snaps at right guard with the third-team unit. That meant he was often matched against fellow first-round draft pick DeForest Buckner, who has been playing left defensive end with the third-team unit.
On Tuesday, the first-string linebacker duo was NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite. On Wednesday, Gerald Hodges was in Wilhoite’s role. He seems to be getting the bulk of the work there, although coaches insist the starting job is a three-man battle among Hodges, Wilhoite and Ray-Ray Armstrong.
The team spent a lot of time on punt returns. Ellington, DeAndrew White, Bryce Treggs and Kenneth Acker all took turns Wednesday. So did starting tailback Carlos Hyde, who badly botched his first attempt and did not get a second try.