By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sunday afternoon, after multiple dropped interceptions in practice, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had a message for his group of defensive backs.
“In our room [pass breakups] aren’t PBUs; they’re missed opportunities. So you don’t get points or gold stars for them,” said Saleh. “There’s a mindfulness and a relentlessness to take the ball. And opportunity actually gives it to you, you gotta come down with it.”
San Francisco’s secondary has been tough to deal with throughout camp, but while they’ve made it difficult to complete passes, they’ve also squandered those opportunities to come up with interceptions. Something clicked on Tuesday, though, as the 49ers defensive backfield capitalized on the opportunities presented to them in practice.
“There’s a difference between being a good and a great defense,” Saleh said. “Good defenses play pass breakup while great defenses get the ball and score.”
A pair of interceptions by Richard Sherman and Adrian Colbert marked the beginning of a transition from a “good” unit to one that has all of the tools to become “great” in the upcoming season.
The first chance came in 1-on-1 drills between receivers and DBs — a place that’s generated more than a few viral clips from camp. Sherman, the former Seattle Seahawk who was the victimized party during these exercises last week, stepped up against 11-year veteran Pierre Garçon.
After getting beat on a deep pass the previous rep, Sherman took it upon himself to make his presence felt. Covering Garçon on a slant route, Sherman jumped in front of a ball thrown by Jimmy Garoppolo to record his first pick of camp.
The usually-outspoken cornerback didn’t trash talk, though, much to the surprise of his teammates.
“When he’s lined up against you in a different jersey, he does seem kind of loud and brash,” said 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk. “It’s absolutely not the case when he’s on your team. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s very genuine and does a great job of bringing other people along. He definitely wants to pass on what he’s learned to younger guys.”
Sherman has taken one player under his wing so far in camp: second-year safety Colbert.
Colbert has often been seen picking Sherman’s brain between plays on the sidelines, but Tuesday, he went from talking to picking off Garoppolo.
Putting the dropped interceptions from Sunday behind him, Colbert made a spectacular grab on a play-action pass on fourth down intended for Marquise Goodwin, who looked to be running a post route coming in from the left side of the field.
“It’s funny, our middle-third safeties never cut anything,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan explained as he broke down the play. “We usually just have someone run through that guy so we can throw underneath but they never cut anything.
“We put Pierre on a different route, just in case Marquise wasn’t open and of course the one time we did it Colbert doesn’t back up, makes a good key, shot his guns and came up with a pick six.”
Colbert took that interception 60 yards for a touchdown as the only turnover in 11-on-11 drills. More importantly, though, it was the only real opportunity for an interception which the San Francisco defense could capitalize on, instead of merely breaking up a pass.
The 49ers gave up the 11th most yards through the air last season (3,764), a number that they will need to improve on if they hope to keep up in the incredibly competitive NFC West division.
Keeping quarterbacks like Jared Goff and Russell WIlson at bay will be a tall task, but at least the group is making a noticeable effort to correct their mistakes while they can still be corrected.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth from this group,” said Juszczyk. “They’re always working on extra things and it’s showing up on the field. Those guys are making plays and there’s a lot of confidence out there.”
– San Francisco inside linebacker Reuben Foster was seen after practice with a noticeable limp and an iced right knee/upper leg. Foster did not comment on the injury but Shanahan called it a “banged up quad.” Foster is expected to practice on Wednesday but that status could change depending on his physical condition.
– Tuesday was 49ers wide receiver Trent Taylor’s first day of practice after being activated from the PUP (physically unable to perform) list earlier in the morning. Although Taylor didn’t see a lot of time in full-team drills, he did participate in solitary route running and 1-on-1s. Taylor played well last year for San Francisco as a slot receiver and will look to build on a productive rookie year.
– Erik Magnuson took reps at right guard today along with Mike Person. Joshua Garnett was inactive due to soreness in his knee after “banging” it with another player on Sunday. Garnett is expected to return to practice in the “coming days” according to the team.