OAKLAND — Ever since the Oakland Raiders surprised everyone by taking Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of Michael Crabtree in last year’s draft it was inevitable that the two receivers would be compared throughout their careers.
That became the case even more when Crabtree went three picks later to the team across the bay, the San Francisco 49ers. The two second-year receivers will meet on the field for the first time tonight when the Raiders host the 49ers in the annual Battle of the Bay exhibition game.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” Heyward-Bey said. “There’s no reason to think about it. I’m focused on this team, this offense and what we have to do for this team and the Raider nation.”
The comparisons were rather one-sided last year even though Crabtree missed five games in a lengthy holdout that was partly attributable to his desire to be the highest-paid receiver in the draft despite being picked after Heyward-Bey.
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Heyward-Bey finished his rookie season with nine catches for 124 yards and one touchdown before missing the final five games with a foot injury. Crabtree had 48 catches for 625 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games — only adding fuel to the critics who questioned why the Raiders passed up the more accomplished Crabtree for the speedier Heyward-Bey.
The idea of altering that perception with a strong performance today is the last thing on Heyward-Bey’s mind.
“I play offense, he plays offense. He has nothing to do with me,” Heyward-Bey said.
Heyward-Bey has looked much improved so far this season on the practice field, but that has yet to carry over to games. He played briefly in the exhibition opener and did not catch the only ball thrown his direction.
He missed last week’s game in Chicago with what coach Tom Cable called “fatigue.” Heyward-Bey returned to practice this week and looked refreshed.
“I think the sky’s the limit for the young man,” new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “I just think he needs to go play and I think he will this week. ... I’m excited about watching a lot of our pieces finally come out and play together for an extended period of time and see where we are.”
This game gives Jackson his first look at running back Darren McFadden and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski this preseason after the two missed the first two games with injuries.
The 49ers also will get their first look this preseason at some key offensive players in running backs Brian Westbrook and Frank Gore, and Crabtree, who missed the first two games with a sore neck.
After Crabtree missed training camp last year in his holdout, the 49ers were hoping to have him on the field as much as possible this summer so they could work on using him in different spots to get him open.
“His work has been good, his improvement has been good,” 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said. “I think he’s such a natural football player, he’ll play good. The nuances of the things that we mess up or miss in terms of formations and adjustments, the coverage, those are the things that are of concern right now.
“Understanding where the hots are, if he’s out of position where he normally plays, which he will be some to try to create matchups for him. The nuances of learning to do all of that and the quarterback being comfortable, that is where we have to make some hay here in the next 10 days or so,” he said.
This is the first of two meetings between the teams this year. They will also play in the regular season Oct. 17 in Candlestick Park, meaning both teams will show even less of their playbook than usual for a preseason game.
The regular season game also likely played a role in why the teams did not hold joint practices this year as they had the previous two training camps.
“It’s probably much less of a deal because we play them in the regular season,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “Whoever wins this game, it’s going to be all for nothing unless you get it done during the regular season. I mean, obviously, you want to go out there and play well, but we all know the big one is coming a few weeks later.”
Both teams enter this game having won their first two preseason games and with optimism that they can both end streaks of seven straight years without winning records.
This is also the first time the Raiders have played at home, allowing the fans to give new quarterback Jason Campbell a warm greeting as the replacement for JaMarcus Russell.
“We’re looking forward to having fun this year, taking everything one step at a time and our goal is to get everyone back in the stands and support us and root us on because our fans are a big part of our success,” Campbell said.