What was once the 49ers’ biggest weakness in 2016 has seemingly become a newfound strength in just over seven months.
Defensively, San Francisco is moving forward from what was perhaps the worst statistical season in franchise history. A revamped defensive line and reinvigorated linebacking corps owned the first day of training camp utilizing its acquired depth and experience.
Second year defensive lineman DeForest Buckner touched on the new look of the defense:
“We got a lot of talent up front and it’s really exciting to see that this year. Being able to see that you can come out and the bar doesn’t drop. It stays at the same level.”
Starting from the defensive first team and all the way through the third and fourth units, the bar was indeed held high. Sacks and interceptions piled up with ease as Robert Saleh’s scheme was executed routinely.
Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster was the first to strike in his debut as a fully cleared player. During seven-on-seven drills, Foster jumped a pass on a seam route and picked off fellow rookie C.J. Beathard and returned it for a touchdown.
The flash of savviness comes as a relieving sign for Foster, who recently recovered from a shoulder injury that kept the first-round pick out of OTA’s and rookie minicamp. First year head coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned this following the day’s practice:
“I was excited. It was good to get him out there. Get him on the field. I know he’s been chomping at the bit for a while now. It was good to see him go through full speed… I think he got an interception out there today which is good for him. Good first day.”
11-on-11 drills drummed up some success for the defense as well. Pass break-ups were a common theme for the day, as several interior linemen and linebackers were able to get their paws on low-flying balls in the middle of the field.
The pass, thrown by Matt Barkley, was subsequently taken back for a defensive touchdown marking the second of the day (Foster’s pick being the first).
Despite the assortment of success during the first day of camp for the defense, there are some areas of concern. Starting free safety Jimmie Ward has been placed on the physically unable to play (PUP) list due to a strained hamstring suffered during Thursday’s conditioning tests according to Shanahan. With Ward’s absence, third-year safety Jaquiski Tartt has been asked to step into the role of free safety, a position at which the Samford University alumni has had limited experience:
“I did mainly strong (safety) and I went free (safety) for like two plays or so. … I’m always ready to go. I approach the game as if I’m a starter so if anybody goes down, I just gotta be ready.”
The matter of starting corners is also still up in the air, as there were several occasions where defensive backs were beaten over the top. Considering it is only the first day of training camp, it is expected for those wrinkles to be ironed out by the time the first preseason game rolls around.