The 49ers starters may see more playing time in the all-important third preseason game Sunday, but it's the backups that are under the most pressure to perform in Denver. One day after the Broncos game, the 49ers must reduce their rosters to 75 players. Four days after that, rosters will be trimmed to 53 players.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio today cited backup safety as one of the positions he hopes will be cleared up in the next two games. (The finale is Aug. 30). He said both the No. 3 and No. 4 spots are up for grabs among a group of five players.
"We'd like to see somebody step forward and make the decisions easy for us, particularly at the safety position," Fangio said. "We know we've got (Donte) Whitner and (Dashon) Goldson. But we're looking to see who's our third, fourth and possibly fifth safety, and we need for that to clear itself up. Hopefully guys will step forward and make it easy. Right now it hasn't been an easy decision for us there."
C.J. Spillman appears to be first in line for the third safety spot. He practiced with the first-team unit when Goldson was unsigned this spring, and he is perhaps the 49ers' top coverage player on special teams. "He's definitely improved from where he was a safety," Fangio said. "He still has to get better, but he is definitely improved."
Sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson, second-year player Colin Jones, undrafted rookie Michael Thomas and newcomer Darcel McBath are competing for the other spots. McBath has more experience than the others having played in 21 games over the last three years and he has a background with secondary coach Ed Donatell from their time in Denver.
But he also noted that he joined the 49ers late in the offseason - July 20 - and has been playing catch up to everyone, including the rookies. "I'm feeling a lot more comfortable -- by the day, by the hour, by the minute," McBath said. "... Hopefully it will transfer over to the field. And I think it has been a little more this past week or a week and a half. Hopefully this week, I'll get a little bit better and come up with some balls or something."
Fangio said that one of the issues is the lack of plays his defense has had in the first two exhibition games. Typically, a defense will be on the field for 60-plus snaps a game. The 49ers have had around 50 in each of the games.
"We've lost about 20 - at least 20 to 30 plays that you normally would get that we haven't gotten," Fangio said. "So we've kind of lost some reps for our younger guys that way."
Fangio said that Ahmad Brooks was ahead of Aldon Smith in their recovery from respective injuries. He would not rule Smith out of Sunday's game, but Smith only went through a limited practice Monday, and it appears as if the preseason finale is more realistic.
Fangio said the plan was to get new outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis into the upcoming game. He may be forced to play since Smith, Cam Johnson (knee) and Kourtnei Brown (hamstring) are slowed by injuries this week.
Eric Bakhtiari appears to have a big lead in the competition to be the No. 4 outside linebacker, especially since Johnson hasn't practiced since Aug. 9. Asked if Johnson, a seventh-round pick, still has a shot at the No. 4 spot, Fangio said, "Well, he's got to get healthy first, and I don't know when it's projected that he'll be back on the field. So I mean the answer today is, no. But when he gets healthy, the answer may change."
Aldon Smith ran into fellow sack master Von Miller in the offseason. The conversation? "I got more sacks than you, bro," Smith said on Tuesday.
Smith finished the regular season with a rookie-best 14 sacks while Miller finished with 11 ½. Miller, of course, was named defensive rookie of the year. The two became friendly rivals playing in the Big 12, and kept in contact during their rookie years.
"I was happy for him," Smith said. "He got the award and we had talked about it before the start of the season. He accomplished what he wanted to do, and I think I did, too. I think we both were pretty happy with what happened."
The two could meet up again on Sunday, but at this point Smith is not expected to play. He went through individual drills on Monday, but is still coming back from the hip pointer suffered Aug. 10.
Still, considering that he needed crutches a week ago, his progress has been pretty remarkable and playing in the preseason finale Aug. 30 is a possibility. "I hope so," Smith said. "I wasn't walking, and now I'm walking. So we'll see what happens next week."
-- Matt Barrows