SANTA CLARA -- Jim Harbaugh is coaching Sunday against one of his former teammates, one who's still playing 12 years later: Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith.

"We were both on the (scout) team, and I just really enjoyed throwing the ball to Steve Smith, some of his first passes," Harbaugh said Friday.

Harbaugh closed his 15-year career in 2001 as a Panthers backup. Reflecting on that stint, he cited Smith's energy, leaping ability and excellent hands, all of which will be on display Sunday when the Panthers (5-3) visit the 49ers (6-2).

Harbaugh said his throwing sessions with Smith are still what he talks about most from his Panthers tenure, noting: "I would say, 'There's a guy there in Carolina named Steve Smith who's really good.' Then he became a great, Hall of Fame-type player."

Smith has evolved into the Panthers' all-time leading receiver. He has a team-high 36 catches for 387 yards and three touchdowns this season.

"The intensity of (Sunday's game) will be good for some of our young players," Smith told Peter King for Friday's TheMMQB on mmqb.si.com. "It'll wake some of them up. I think it'll be a chippy game, which is in my element. Good old-fashioned football."

Smith and Anquan Boldin, the 49ers' leading receiver, are two of the NFL's most physical wideouts, but their on-field demeanors differ.

"Steve will have a history with people that he doesn't care for ... and you might get a fight out of him," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Anquan just has a physical style of play. ... If there's one that almost gets into a fight, that's Steve Smith, but he backs it up all the time."


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Rogers said he and Smith got along well in their previous meeting, when Rogers was with Washington in 2009. If he isn't covering Smith or former 49ers teammate Ted Ginn Jr. on the outside, Rogers will shift to the slot and match up against Brandon LaFell.

Quarterbacks are completing only 50 percent of their passes and producing a 67.7 passer rating when targeting Rogers. Those marks, respectively, rank him 13th and 21st among the league's cornerbacks.

If Rogers weren't playing so solidly, the 49ers could summon a potential successor in Eric Wright, who was activated last week and might make his season debut Sunday. Wright is preparing to play but didn't say if that's the plan, nor did Harbaugh.

  • A decade after last playing at Candlestick Park, Terrell Owens will return Sunday as the 49ers' honorary game captain. Owens, the 49ers' second-most prolific receiver behind Jerry Rice, will be on hand to commemorate his January 1999 playoff heroics as part of the team's "Farewell Candlestick" campaign.

    In what's called "The Catch II" in 49ers lore, Owens snagged a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young to defeat the Green Bay Packers 30-27 in a Jan. 3, 1999, NFC wild-card playoff game. Owens' 40th birthday is Dec. 7, exactly 10 years after he scored two touchdowns in a win over the Cardinals in his final 49ers home game.

  • Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks, who typically start on the left side of the 49ers' defensive line, will be opposing a first-time starter in right guard Nate Chandler. Guard Chris Scott (knee) and cornerback James Dockery (shoulder) are out for Carolina, and starting linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot) is a game-day decision.

  • Linebacker Aldon Smith had a "solid, very good week" in his return after a five-game hiatus while in substance-abuse treatment. Harbaugh was not aware of any plans to limit Smith's snaps Sunday.

  • Tight end Vernon Davis has a team-high seven touchdown receptions this year and 47 for his career, leaving him one shy of tying Dwight Clark for the fifth-most in 49ers history.

  • Frank Gore's seven rushing touchdowns are his most through eight games in his career, and they're tied for third-most in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson (Vikings, nine) and Knowshon Moreno (Broncos, eight).

  • Wide receiver Michael Crabtree wasn't on the field and instead did weight-room work while Friday's practice began. He practiced the previous two days for the first time since his Achilles tear in May. The 49ers have two more weeks to evaluate Crabtree before deciding whether to activate him off the physically-unable-to-perform list.

  • Jersey numbers of 49ers potentially making their season debuts: Wright (No. 30), defensive tackle Tank Carradine (No. 95) and wide receiver Mario Manningham (No. 82).

  • Wideout Kyle Williams (knee) was added to the injury report after practice. He participated in full and is probable.

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.

    SUNDAY'S GAME

    Carolina (5-3) at 49ers (6-2),
    1:05 p.m. FOX