San Francisco 49ers

Practice notes: 49ers starting defense taking shape

SANTA CLARA -- Before the grass swallowed up 49ers practice, the team was going through its final open session of the year. Here are the highlights from Levi's Stadium:

A number of starting defensive players who have sat out recent games or recent practices were on the field together today. That includes cornerback Tramaine Brock, defensive linemen Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Ray McDonald and linebacker Patrick Willis.

I'd expect the first four mentioned to play in Sunday's third preseason game against San Diego. Willis was in a blue “non-contact” jersey as he recovers from a minor issue. His availability is fuzzier for the Chargers game.

Backup nose tackle Mike Purcell also was in a blue, non-contact jersey. He's played as many snaps as anyone this summer and deserves some recognition for toughing it out while a large percentage of the defensive line was on the sideline. He's a candidate for the annual – and coveted – “Iron Bee” award that gets issued at the end of the preseason.


Not in a blue jersey: LaMichael James, who handled punt returns with a brace on his right arm. It will be interesting to see whether James, who has been hurt in two previous preseasons, plays against the Chargers. It's been about three weeks since he suffered his dislocated elbow in practice.

The only starting defensive player who was not on the field was safety Antoine Bethea, who is going through the league-mandated post-concussion protocol. Craig Dahl lined up in his place and it would be a surprise if Bethea plays on Sunday.


Who is the team's top option at nickel cornerback? It's been hard to decipher because one of the candidates, Perrish Cox, has been starting at cornerback while Brock has dealt with an ankle injury. That has allowed first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward to get plenty of repetitions with the first-string unit as he did Sunday against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Well, Brock was back today and Ward was still on the field when the first-team defense was in its nickel package. Let's see if that holds during the upcoming game.


Speaking of Brock, he made the play of the abbreviated “open” practice when he stepped in front of David Reed for a pick-six interception of McLeod Bethel-Thompson that got the assembled crowd – a few thousand – cheering.

I watched Ian Williams during one-on-one pass-rush drills. He looked very good, albeit against rookie Marcus Martin, on both of his attempts. Martin only recently returned to practice and, despite a good game against the Broncos, is behind the other linemen.

Others who stood out in one-on-ones: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Jonathan Martin (except when he went against Aldon Smith) and rookie offensive lineman Dillon Farrell. He needs to get stronger but has had a good training camp and seemingly would be a good fit on the practice squad.