This is the first day of this 2012 San Francisco 49ers training camp I’ve been privileged to watch in person, and it was as if nothing at all had changed since the end of last season. The defense was fast, cohesive, and downright incredible at times. The offense, especially in the red zone, looked overmatched, tentative, and downright inept at times.

In case you don’t trust me, let’s ask Jim Harbaugh … Did the defense dominate the offense as thoroughly as it looked to the untrained eye?

“It did. It certainly did. About every which way it could be dominated. It was an outstanding day for our defense. Turnovers, pass rush, communication, the way they’re playing together is at a high level — both units,” Harbaugh said.

This didn’t sound like a case of the 49ers offense running into a unit that nobody could’ve beaten on this particular day. Harbaugh didn’t go into specifics, but he said that for the offense Friday was “a day where we took a step back.”

However, Harbaugh stressed that although the defense has gotten the better of things over the last two days and today in particular, the offense is by no means in trouble.

“Every day has really been getting better and better and better and better from the beginning of camp. So to look at this practice as a whole (of training camp) would be a mistake.”

I’ll try my best to not think of this practice as an accurate representation of the entire camp, even though it’s the first one I’ve seen this preseason. But the offense was a mess, and in familiar ways.

  • Way too many checkdowns.
  • Continuous pass pressure and sacks (hitting quarterbacks is off limits right now, which is good for the 49ers because otherwise they probably would’ve lost at least two of their four QBs)
  • Several pass deflections
  • Red zone stagnation (every unit)

“Lopsided the last couple of days,” Alex Smith said. “The last two days it was red zone emphasis. First two days, not good. Defense definitely got the better of us I felt like, in all aspects — seven-on-seven and team.”

Positive: the defense is still phenomenal … perhaps even better than before

One rule I absolutely cannot break is quoting what players and coaches say during practice, and I’m not going to go against that under any circumstances. However, I’m pretty sure I can say that the best part of covering today’s practice was getting to stand directly behind the players on the sideline and listen to the communication that goes on, both formal and informal.

Actually, it’s all informal in terms of the language used and how guys give each other a hard time. But the formality comes when you hear Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers talk about a stutter step Randy Moss made, and how the offense is trying to fool them so they can get a particular receiver open. I stood closer to the first team defense than I ever got to the first team offense, so I don’t know if they’re better communicators or more comfortable with each other. They may not be. But the bond these guys have is evident.

Both Dashon Goldson and especially Donte Whitner spent a lot of time talking with rookie safety Trenton Robinson, whose eyes seemed extremely wide. Aldon Smith seems much more talkative now than he was during the training camp practice I saw last season (and just as effective as a pass rusher — he “sacked” Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick multiple times).

It’s funny to see the divide between both units. The defense roots for each other (and playfully chides the offense whenever there’s an opportunity). Hopefully I’m not breaking any rules here, but the phrase “I see you, (player’s name)!” is heard after every time a significant play is made on the defensive side. Tramaine Brock heard that phrase from the sideline several times. So did Justin Smith (of course). Even former Stanford safety Michael Thomas was “seen.”

The No. 1 question of 2012…

We already knew the defense was going to rush the quarterback, stop the run and probably leave several opposing offensive players injured in its wake. The only worry, and I don’t even think it’s a major concern, is whether or not the secondary can improve on third down (I think they can — depth at safety has been improved and I think Tarell Brown’s belief in himself as a Pro Bowl corner who could lead the league in interceptions is warranted).

The true 49ers red zone offense will feature more Frank Gore than what we saw today, and I can’t imagine many of the plays run today will be seen in pressure situations during games that count. But does this offense look so awful in the red zone right now because they’re going up against the 2012 49ers defense, or are they still a rotten red zone team that’ll struggle against plain old ordinary NFL defenses, too?