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49ers Notebook: Richburg, Ford return as Pettis sits, addresses Shanahan’s call for improvement

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA – Less than a week remains before the 49ers’ roster is whittled down to 53 players and on Monday, a pair of crucial veterans returned to practice.

Richburg on an unpleasant 2018, and his long road to recovery

Weston Richburg says he had a bounce in his step on Monday. After a year of pain and exhaustion, both physically and mentally for the 28-year-old starting center, that statement is music to the 49ers’ ears. While he wasn’t “full speed” going against his teammates, there was an evident relief and joy for Richburg in being back on a football field with pads on.

After tearing his left quadricep tendon and partially tearing his knee in Week 4 and playing through the injury for the entire 2018 season (that timeline is correct, somehow), Richburg had the injury surgically reattached to his kneecap in January. The recovery process was particularly grueling from a mental standpoint, Richburg said, in that his leg had to be locked straight for a month-and-a-half. That amount of time weakened his leg muscles and made the road back extraordinarily challenging, Richburg said.

“I used to think training camp was hard, but not doing training camp and sitting there is way harder,” Richburg said. “It feels really good to be back.”

Throughout the process of returning, Richburg, who signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the 49ers in 2018, said he was able to lean on the team’s mental health and new performance staff.

“They hired some really, really good dudes,” Richburg said. “Ryan, our therapist does a really good job, so I was in very good hands… You can trust [the training staff] 100 percent with everything they tell you because they have the players’ best in mind. I was a little hesitant at first with new people coming in being able to trust them with something like this, but being out there today, really was a confirmation that they did a good job and really had my best in mind.”

Now that he’s back in the mix, the expectations for the highly-paid center will return sooner rather than later. Richburg’s goal is to return for Week 1 and miss zero games, a timeline which will make the next two weeks (before the 49ers kick off their season September 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), “a grind,” as Richburg put it.

He knows the bar is going to be set much higher for this season, both for himself and the 49ers.

“It needs to be better. It was not a fun year at all,” Richburg said. “We were 4-12 which is not fun in the first place when you’re dealing with things like that and when things don’t look the way you want, when you want to be very good, it’s frustrating. It’s very difficult. Not a lot of people understand the things a lot of guys went through last year in this locker room, so glad to have everybody back and the new guys we’ve added because it’s very exciting around here.”

Yes, Dante Pettis knows he needs to improve

First of all, for the surprisingly large branch of 49ers Twitter which has ragged on a second-round pick from a year ago who caught five touchdown passes, it’s still the preseason. And to that same group, yes, there are concerns about Pettis. It’s why head coach Kyle Shanahan said Pettis is “…still trying to earn a role on this team,” although that’s clearly a motivating tactic more so than it is raising the possibility of Pettis being cut (which won’t happen).

But NFL reality doesn’t operate on a binary scale. Pettis can be having a poor preseason and needing to improve and simultaneously not be in store for a horrendous campaign. There’s every chance he still becomes the 49ers’ No. 1 this season.

Pettis, who did not practice with a minor groin issue on Monday, said there’s one word to describe what he needs to improve on: “urgency.”

“It’s [running] more deliberately,” Pettis said. “I have such long, smooth strides, that a lot of times it looks like I’m not going hard or the way I run my routes might be different than someone who has shorter strides, so shoring up my strides is I guess one way to do that because it sets things up better.”

Pettis said the outside criticism “is what it is,” but that he wasn’t surprised by what Shanahan said.

“I mean I talk to him about this stuff all the time and it didn’t shock me or anything,” Pettis said. “I know I need to keep playing better.”

Other notes: Injuries, and yes, Solomon Thomas was supposed to be covering that tailback

  • Most notably aside from RichburgDee Ford returned to practice on Monday, while Pettis, as mentioned, sat out. Here’s a look at the current 49ers’ injuries (with non-major ones like Jason Verrett and Nick Bosa excluded), which will be clarified further when Shanahan speaks after practice on Tuesday:

  • Why was Solomon Thomas covering a running back? Here’s defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s answer on why Thomas was out in coverage against the Kansas City Chiefs’ Damien Williams; a play which went for a touchdown after Williams beat Thomas easily, and Jaquiski Tartt failed to make a necessary, but tough tackle:

“You guys don’t like Solomon on a running back? (laughing) No, it’s preseason, we’re trying some stuff out. That could happen. With our system, when you’re trying to bring five, when you’re trying to bring six, when you’re trying to bring overloads, somebody has to account for the back and usually it’s going to be a defensive end. Otherwise you’re just rushing four all the time or it’s just a simple five-man pressure that’s not very hard for offenses to pick up. So, you’ve got to be able to get creative and the more creative you get the more you expose your linemen to coverage. On that particular play, that is not what we want. I’m glad it happened because it created a secondary check that we can get to and all that stuff. But it happened, I’m glad it happened. I’m not glad it happened, but you’d still like for us to get it down and get to the next play but it was a great learning experience for everybody.”

  • To clarify, Saleh doesn’t want Thomas out in coverage in the regular season:

“No, that’s his peel. He’s, we call him a peel rusher, so that is his coverage. The overall design of the play, not what we want which is what I was referring to with Solomon being, basically him peeling with the quarterback being able to step into his throw is not something we want. So, no, we don’t want that happening.”

  • It very much seems like the 49ers want to sneak Azeez Al-Shaair onto the practice squad. He’s had an excellent preseason thus far, but Saleh put a damper, while not explicitly, on him being likely to make the roster (if the 49ers put Jerick McKinnon on injured reserve-return designation, they’ll need to cut an extra player for a day and sign someone after they make the move with McKinnon, and Al-Shaair would be a very strong candidate for that sixth linebacker spot with his strong special teams ability also a bonus). Here’s what Saleh said about him on Monday:

“I still feel the same. He’s undrafted, he didn’t get OTAs, so he’s still behind mentally in terms of playbook stuff. I shouldn’t say behind, he’s still playing catch-up. There’s still subtle nuances and details that come into that MIKE linebacker spot. I have a process that players should go through, you get your call, you get your alignment, you get your key, which is you place your eyes where they need to be and you execute the defense.

“He’s still catching up to the alignment part, and if you’re still trying to play catch-up to alignment, you’re going to be playing catch-up with your keys, which leads you to play catch-up with your execution. When he’s aligned, his eyes are right and all that stuff, he looks pretty good, but there’s still a lot of things with regards to the many different looks, plays, formations that offenses can give him with regards to all the different defenses we run where he needs to get on it from a precision standpoint to be able to take his game to another level.”


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