The 49ers' starting lineup is mostly set, but coach Jim Harbaugh has plenty he's looking for his team to accomplish as San Francisco prepares for Thursday night's preseason finale at home against San Diego.
The starters aren't expected to play long, but quarterback Alex Smith will start and Harbaugh is looking for the offense to establish a rhythm and execute on the fundamentals. Once they depart, the coaching staff will be closely scrutinizing the backups as the 49ers prepare for final roster cuts from 75 players to 53.
"All these games are important," Harbaugh said. "They all in some form or fashion decide, factor into, contribute to decisions that you make."
Harbaugh believes the 49ers are improved from this time last year, and increased depth across the roster means several veterans are battling for their jobs.
One of those players is running back Anthony Dixon, who has enjoyed a solid preseason but was also bumped down the depth chart when the team signed Brandon Jacobs and drafted LaMichael James to complement Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, who is having an outstanding preseason.
Dixon is helping his cause by emerging as a "core" performer on the special teams units. However, also on the roster is Rock Cartwright, a 32-year-old 10-year veteran who is a strong special teams player.
"He's done a nice job," Harbaugh said of Dixon. "I think that him working and not worrying, like we have seen him do. Just seeing the evidence of that and seeing how that pays off. But, he's doing a heck of a job."
Still, there's not guarantee Dixon won't be a victim of the numbers game. The 49ers already let go of sixth-round pick offensive lineman Jason Slowey, and competition is stiff across the board.
"It's not an enjoyable process," Harbaugh said of cut-down day. "You see how much they put into it and how hard they've worked. And appreciate the effort.
"It's not the end. So many of them have made so much ground for themselves. They've picked up a lot of equity here and in the league and what' they've put on tape, and they're one step closer to that goal."
Beyond solidifying the 53-man roster, Harbaugh's primary goal is preparing the 49ers for their Sept. 9 regular-season opener at Green Bay. San Francisco is coming off a 13-3 2011 season, a run to the NFC Championship Game and is expected to be a Super Bowl contender this year. But Harbaugh isn't concerned about having to motivate his team.
"I think it all starts with the competiveness of our players, them. That group of guys that we've got in our locker room and coaches, our team," he said. "I think that the pride that they take in their own individual performance and the way the team plays, it's a great group to motivate because they already are motivated. That's what makes it such a team that's a joy to coach."
--Wide receiver Mario Manningham will miss the Chargers game as he attends his grandfather's funeral in Warren, Ohio. Manningham, signed to a two-year, $7.4 million free agent deal from the Giants, has played on only one preseason game.
"Is it enough? Is it not enough? I always like more," Harbaugh said. "More is more."
--Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (hip) is expected to play vs. San Diego, Harbaugh said.
--James (ankle) is expected to play against the Chargers.