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49ers new-look passing game yet to get untracked during camp

Associated Press

8/5/2012 4:10:01 AM

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With their first preseason game less than a week away, the San Francisco 49ers have a similar look to where they ended last season.

The defence is performing at a high level. The offence is still lagging.

The 49ers used the off-season to upgrade a passing offence that ranked 29th last season.

But the 49ers haven't displayed much progress in that area after a week of training camp practices, even with the addition of veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.

With Michael Crabtree out with a leg injury, it has been up to Moss and Manningham to provide most of the highlights in a passing game that has struggled in recent days to find any kind of rhythm.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said the offence "took a step back" during Friday's session of team drills, saying the defence dominated the offence "about every which way it could be dominated."

The 49ers had their first night practice of summer camp on Saturday before a day off for players Sunday.

It was supposed to start looking better than this after the 49ers signed Moss and Manningham in free agency, then used their first-round draft pick in April to select Illinois speedster A.J. Jenkins.

"I'm not saying we're terrible right now," Manningham said Saturday. "But we're not where we want to be. We all have to get better in all phases."

Quarterback Alex Smith had the best year of his career last season, finishing ninth in the NFL with a 90.7 passer rating while throwing just five interceptions.

Smith's efficiency in running the offence played a significant role in San Francisco's turnaround season after an eight-year drought without a winning record.

But Smith's career-high 3,144 yards passing ranked just 19th in the NFL and 16 other quarterbacks threw more than Smith's 17 touchdown passes.

Those are two stats the 49ers would like to improve upon this season. In San Francisco's overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game, Smith completed just one pass to a wide receiver. The 49ers would like to improve on that, too.

Smith was encouraged this spring by the team's progress during the first off-season of work in Harbaugh's system. He feels the recent snag in that progress is just something the offence needs to work through.

"Everybody on offence has really zoned in on that the last two days and made a lot of emphasis of it, and it hasn't been good enough," Smith said. "Prior to that, I feel like we got off to a good start. But obviously, there's room for improvement."

Crabtree became Smith's top target in the passing game last season, and the rapport between the two continued this spring. Crabtree led the 49ers last season with a career-high 72 receptions, but the 49ers didn't get more than 20 catches from any other wide receiver.

That's expected to change this season with the additions of Moss and Manningham, who should take some of the attention away from Crabtree.

But Crabtree hurt his leg during the first day of camp and the 49ers have missed having their top receiver in the mix.

That's a recurring problem for Crabtree, who has missed extensive time in training camp for the third consecutive year. Now entering his fourth season, Crabtree has yet to play in a preseason game. He missed all of training camp and the exhibition season as a rookie in 2009 due to a contract impasse.

"Michael's working through something, but I don't think this is going to be a major bump in the road," Harbaugh said. "He came in in such great shape and looked fantastic. We feel like we can get him back soon and pick right up. He's chomping at the bit to get back out there, and I don't anticipate any issues when he gets back."

San Francisco's struggles on offence have extended into the red zone, another area in which the team is looking for considerable improvement this season.

The 49ers ranked 30th in red zone offence last season, scoring touchdowns just 40.68 per cent of the time they got inside opponents' 20-yard line.

Those problems have been magnified in recent red-zone team drills during which the offence was consistently denied by a defence that ranked fourth in the league last season.

San Francisco also ranked first in rushing defence and fourth in red zone defence, and that unit returns all 11 starters from last season.

"When you work against a defence like ours, as an offence it provides a great challenge," offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman said. "It makes you better day in and day out, so watching our defence compete against our offence is always a good thing for the 49ers. As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another."

The 49ers are hoping to get much sharper by the time they host Minnesota in their preseason opener on Aug. 10. San Francisco's first-team offence was embarrassed in its preseason opener last year at New Orleans.

"We have to handle it, move forward, learn from it, and I think we will," Harbaugh said. "That's the way this offensive unit has been since we got together. So I anticipate that we can handle it and make a positive out of it."