By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On the final play of San Francisco 49ers practice on Sunday, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne turned on the jets at the end of a post-fade. After separating from his defenders, he hauled in a 60-yard score, capping a methodical, 80-yard drive by the 49ers offense during a move-the-ball period to end practice.
The play was a nice pick-me-up to end the day, but for yet another practice, the 49ers offense was largely dominated by the secondary, which continued to turn heads by adding four more interceptions to their ever-growing tally of turnovers Sunday.
“They’re ballin’ right now,” said 49ers tight end George Kittle. “They’re doing a great job and that’s a shout out to the defensive coordinator, defensive coaches. They’re pointing out plays to them and they’re succeeding in them — taking advantage of the opportunities.”
Rookie cornerback D.J. Reed Jr. set the tone in one-on-one drills early in practice, with a pick to deny 5-foot-9 slot receiver Richie James Jr.
After jamming James at the line of scrimmage, Reed stuck to the receiver’s hip, making the designed comeback route nearly impossible to run. Before James could adjust to Reed’s coverage, third-string quarterback Nick Mullens had already thrown the ball. Brushing James to the side, Reed made a drive on the ball to secure the interception. But that was just the beginning of the slew of turnovers forced by San Francisco DBs.
In the second series of full-team drills, another rookie joined in, as Tarvarus McFadden capitalized on an erroneous throw by Mullens, intended for Steven Dunbar Jr.
On a pass that was thrown too high and out of Dunbar’s reach, the ball was first tipped into the air by Dunbar and them Virginia Tech product Antone Exum Jr. McFadden was able to corral the ball before it hit the turf and get up to run into the end zone for a pick-six.
Next up was Tyvis Powell, who like Reed, jumped a shallow route to force another interception against the 49ers’ offense.
Powell, participating in seven-on-seven drills in the red zone, jumped in from of a pass thrown by backup QB C.J. Beathard in the right flat for the third pick.
Taking advantage of Beathard once more, 49ers safety Chancellor James tipped another pass into arms of linebacker Eli Harold.
“I’m just going to say; I think they take our plays,” joked Kittle when asked about the secondary’s success.
To Kittle’s defense, the 49ers defense has seen the same vanilla-flavored plays for the past three weeks. The same can be said for the offense as they, too, have encountered the same looks so far in camp.
“It goes both ways for offense and defense,” said 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “They know our cadence. We know some of their calls on defense just because you hear ‘em every single day and you talk to guys in the locker room. It’s the way camp goes.”
San Francisco’s secondary has quickly become one of the strongest units on the team, in stark contrast to a year ago, when some of the biggest question marks came from that same group.
In 2017, the 49ers gave up the eighth-most passing touchdowns in the NFL (27) while bringing down only 10 interceptions. They also allowed the 13th highest completion percentage (63.8 percent).
If this ball-hawking mentality can carry over to the regular season, San Francisco should see a dramatic improvement from those numbers.
The one blow this 49ers secondary did take Sunday was losing nickel corner K’waun WIlliams, who rolled his ankle midway through practice. Making a play on an outside zone rush, Williams stepped on an offensive lineman’s foot.
“I heard he just rolled his ankle,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Maybe we’ll find out more later. Right now, we don’t think it’s high, but we’ll see.”
– While the 49ers’ backup quarterbacks had a rough time against the team’s defense, Garoppolo looked great in full-team activities. Distribution of the ball was key as he hit six different receivers, including Bourne, on the practice-ending touchdown drive. Chemistry seems to be building with Pierre Garçon as the two hooked up for a key third-down conversion near the 50-yard line on the same drive.
– Reuben Foster was seen lining up at outside linebacker a few times Sunday. This suggests that he might be featured as an edge rusher in certain scenarios as well as his traditional role as an inside linebacker. The 49ers use Eli Harold at this position in base formations but we could see Foster moved over if needed.
– Joe Williams and Jerick McKinnon both broke big runs in 11-on-11 drills today to mark the highlights of another tough day rushing the ball. Williams was the first to break through with a 35-yarder down the right sideline. McKinnon was later able to hit the B gap and bounce a run down the left sideline for a touchdown. Williams looks like the real deal this season after being shelved on injury reserve last season. Although Matt Breida has emerged as the No. 2 running back behind McKinnon, Williams is making it hard for the 49ers to keep him off of the 53-man roster two weeks into camp.