Film review: Culliver ready to pounce on starting job

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Film review: Culliver ready to pounce on starting job

Cornerback Tarell Brown sat out last Wednesday's practice due to a slight hamstring ailment. He returned to practice the next day, and was available for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins.

It was a wise move.

Jim Harbaugh has been reluctant to make lineup changes in two seasons as 49ers coach. Guard Chilo Rachal is the only player benched due solely to poor play.

But Harbaugh has made several changes after injuries. And quarterback Alex Smith does not stand alone.

Bruce Miller took over at fullback for veteran Moran Norris due to an injury last season and he held onto the job. Shawntae Spencer lost his starting job and then his role as the No. 3 cornerback due to an injuries. Tramaine Brock, who opened last season as the No. 3 cornerback, sustained an injury that opened the door for Chris Culliver, who has remained in that role.

And, now, Culliver is playing at a starter's level. If Brown or Carlos Rogers ever exit the lineup, Culliver would have a chance to take over -- and then hold onto -- a starting job.

Rogers got off to a slow start Sunday against the Dolphins with an apparent miscommunication on Miami's second play of the game that resulted in a game-long 28-yard pass play.

Rogers and Brown have started every game for a defense that No. 2 in the NFL against the pass. And both had solid showings Sunday in a defensive effort that held rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill to 17-of-33 passing for 150 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

But Culliver, who played 70 percent of the snaps as the 49ers' third cornerback, had another outstanding game. He was targeted four times and did not allow a catch, according to Pro Football Focus. He had the defensive play of the game when he hung in the air long enough to deflect Tannehill's deep throw to Brian Hartline in the end zone. Culliver's 42.9 completion percentage allowed this season ranks as the best in the NFL, according to PFF.

Other observations from the 49ers' 27-13 victory over Miami:

--Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who has quickly risen to the short list of NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates, had four quarterback hurries to go along with his two sacks.

--Neither of Aldon Smith's sacks was a direct result of any help from Justin Smith, who was busy causing all kinds of problems of his own for the Dolphins. Justin Smith was particularly impressive at the start of the second half when he batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage on second down and then destroyed guard Richie Incognito to pressure Tannehill into a third-down incomplete pass.

--Safety Dashon Goldson did not have a strong game, as he overran a couple of would-be tackles. He took a bad angle and allowed Tannehill to get past him for a 20-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. He also got flattened by center Mike Pouncey on a 9-yard gain by Reggie Bush. Goldson's best play was in coverage against Bush on a deep right along the left sideline.

--Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, fined $10,000 last week for unnecessary roughness, could be looking at another fine this week for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Tannehill in the fourth quarter. It drew a 15-yard penalty.

--The 49ers' only touchdown allowed came on a play in which tight end Anthony Fasano made a highlight-reel one-handed diving catch against the sideline in the end zone. It's difficult to fault the coverage of safety Donte Whitner on that one.

--On offense, the 49ers featured a lot of balanced offensive formations with Colin Kaepernick in the pistol along with three backs.

"We thought in this particular game, that it was a way for us to get a hat on a hat," Harbaugh said. "A way to balance off Miami's defense and what they had shown to do. Because it is a balanced formation, it allows you to go in any direction and throw the ball. It was a good, basic, base formation for us in this game."

The 49ers used it on the first play of the game to hit Delanie Walker on a 20-yard reception.

--Kaepernick had only two pass plays for 20 yards or more. The pass to Walker traveled 17 yards in the air, and a 25-yard gain to Michael Crabtree included 7 yards after the catch.

--The only pass Kaepernick has thrown the past two weeks at least 20 yards in the air, according to PFF, was the flea-flicker to Randy Moss. The ball was perfectly thrown, but Moss seemed to have very little chance of making the one-handed catch with cornerback R.J. Stanford grabbing Moss' right arm.

--Kaepernick was 18 of 23 for 185 yards. His five incompletions consisted of: 1) A bullet off Vernon Davis' hands at the left sideline against good coverage. The throw was high and wide and too hot for Davis to handle; 2) A high-and-outside throw toward the right pylon to Crabtree that, if accurate, likely would've been a 20-yard touchdown pass; 3) A wise throwaway at the end of the first half to allow David Akers time to kick a 37-yard field goal; 4) The deep throw to Moss, which could've been a 47-yard TD; and 5) A quasi-throwaway just before running out of bounds on a roll to his left late in the third quarter.

--Crabtree was targeted 10 times and caught nine passes. Fifty of his 93 receiving yards came after the catch.

--Left tackle Joe Staley graded out with a strong performance, according to PFF. He surrendered one sack but did not allow any other pressures. According to PFF's rating system, Staley has not had a negative grade in any game this season.

--Running back Frank Gore looked fresh and routinely made Dolphins defenders miss. His used an exceptional jump-cut to peel off a 19-yard gain late in the third quarter. Due in large part to Miami's focus on Gore, Kaepernick was able to keep the ball on a zone read play in the fourth quarter for a 50-yard, game-clinching touchdown.

--On the first play of the fourth quarter, Gore ran 19 yards on a draw play to the 1-yard line. Guard Alex Boone made a strong block on defensive tackle Paul Soliai and rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins had a block against safety Chris Clemons.

--On the next play, extra blocker Daniel Kilgore absolutely mauled defensive end Olivier Vernon and Miller took care of safety Reshad Jones on Anthony Dixon's 1-yard touchdown run.

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.

Barkley continues work with personal coach of Brady, Ryan

Barkley continues work with personal coach of Brady, Ryan

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan spent last offseason working with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics.

Ryan went on to set career-bests in completion percentage (69.9), yards passing (4,944), touchdowns (38), interceptions (7) and passer rating (117.1).

New 49ers quarterback Matt Barkley worked with House and Dedeaux for the fourth offseason in Southern California before reporting to Santa Clara for the team’s offseason program.

“Kyle (Shanhan) is on board with what House and those guys are doing – I think, really, because of the year Matt Ryan had,” Barkley said on “The 49ers Insider Podcast” on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“He’s a believer in that. He saw the benefits of what Matt did with some of his drops and the timing on routes, how he changed his feet on some things. So we’re kind of sticking with that plan. Everyone is a little different, but for the most part we’re all on the same page when it comes to what our drops are looking like, our footwork and how the ball is coming out.”

House is a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who founded the 3DQB training facility in Los Angeles. Dedeaux pitched at USC and is the grandson of USC baseball coaching legend Rod Dedeaux. Former NFL quarterback John Beck is a motion mechanics instructor.

Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Alex Smith and Carson Palmer are among the NFL quarterbacks who have worked with 3DQB.

“I believe in those guys and what they’re doing,” Barkley said. “They’re at the top of their game, working with Brady and a bunch of other guys. They’ve helped me.

“He won’t change your throwing motion or really tweak how the ball comes out, but he’s going to try to maximize velocity and ground force production and torque -- a lot of sports science terms. But, really, just maximizing efficiency with your motion and making sure you’re sequencing is right.”

Barkley had never played for Shanahan before signing a two-year contract with the 49ers on the first day of free agency. But there are two obvious connections. Barkley’s offensive coordinator last season with the Chicago Bears was Dowell Loggains, Shanahan’s quarterbacks coach in 2014 when Shanahan was the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator. The other connection is House.

"It’s kind of funny, he worked with Atlanta’s staff all of last year, helped Matt Ryan, kind of build his base from the ground up and helped him a lot and he had an MVP year," Barkley said of House.

"There may have been talks down the pipeline, who knows. I don’t think that was the deciding factor by any means, but it never hurts.”