That winning formula that carried San Francisco back to the Super Bowl last season for the first time in 18 years is on display again with the season opener two weeks away.
Colin Kaepernick marched the offense with six straight completions during a series that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Quinton Patton, and Aldon Smith and Justin Smith plowed through Minnesota's offensive line to make plays and hard-hitting tackles in the 49ers' 34-14 exhibition victory over the Vikings on Sunday night.
"Justin Smith had a burr in his saddle or something tonight," Harbaugh said. "He was Justin Smith."
Sure, it's only the preseason. And there were a lot of foolish penalties.
Yet Kaepernick looks sharp, and the defense looks its usual stingy.
Justin Smith ran over two would-be blockers to pound Toby Gerhart for a 4-yard loss midway through the first quarter, and sack man Aldon Smith recovered a fumble and put pressure on Christian Ponder.
The new look in this one: flashy Lavelle Hawkins.
Hawkins returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter, but he received two unsportsmanlike penalties in the process — one for pointing the ball at a Vikings player before reaching the end zone and another for removing his helmet in celebration. Harbaugh chewed him out on the sideline, and Hawkins could be seen saying, "My fault."
Yet Hawkins received another unsportsmanlike flag for head-butting linebacker Desmond Bishop after flipping the ball toward safety Mistral Raymond following a 22-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
"Those things are not OK to have, especially for the team, I don't care if it's the preseason. I apologized to the team and I apologized to Coach Harbaugh," Hawkins said. "I kind of let my emotions get ahold of me. I didn't think, to be honest, I'd be flagged on those. I learned from it."
There were a couple of other things Harbaugh didn't like — Nick Moody's helmet-to-helmet hit on wideout Stephen Burton that resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter, and a face mask by cornerback Perrish Cox on the same Minnesota scoring drive.
After a week of long practices as the Vikings tried to get their stagnant offense on a roll, there were considerable strides.
Ponder threw a pair of touchdown passes while playing three quarters.
He connected on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Zach Line late in the first half for the quarterback's first TD completion of the preseason, then threw an interception in Minnesota's final series before halftime. In the Vikings' opening drive of the second half, Ponder hit Joe Webb with a 3-yard scoring pass.
"That drive in the third quarter, we kind of got that experience of establishing some rhythm on offense," Ponder said. "We ended on a good note."
Reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson didn't touch the ball in two snaps of action for Minnesota, making his preseason debut — and first appearance in the exhibition schedule since 2011 — as he begins a year in which he will try to become the first player with consecutive 2,000-yard rushing seasons.
"It was definitely limited but I felt like it was kind of effective getting the play-action in," he said. "It is all about keeping your body in shape, doing the necessary things ... just making sure your body is ready to roll."
Ponder went 17 of 23 for 116 yards, a step up after two unimpressive outings and a 28.3 passer rating in his first two exhibition games.
This hardly looked like the Vikings' group that handed the NFC champion Niners their first loss last fall, a 24-13 victory Sept. 23 in Minneapolis.
On the third play of the game, Ponder fumbled and gave the 49ers the ball at the Vikings 11. Ahmad Brooks swiped the ball away and Aldon Smith recovered.
San Francisco then went ahead on a 30-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, who added a 50-yarder before halftime.
The 49ers saw a couple of new players for the first time in quarterback Seneca Wallace and wideout Jon Baldwin, not to mention a familiar face in backup running back Kendall Hunter. Returning from a torn Achilles tendon injury that ended his season in late November and required surgery, Hunter scampered 15 yards on his first carry since the injury.
That first-quarter run gave San Francisco first down during the 49ers' third series.
Kaepernick began the game 1 for 7, then converted his next six pass attempts during that touchdown drive — including four in a row of 10 or more yards. Vernon Davis caught back-to-back receptions of 10 and 11 yards, and Patton and Marlon Moore each had two receptions in the series.
Notes: Rookie fourth-round draft pick Patton (broken finger) played for the first time. ... 49ers QB Colt McCoy went 11 for 15 for 109 yards a day after restructuring his contract. Harbaugh all but announced McCoy as Kaepernick's backup, saying, "I feel real good that Colt's the backup." ... Vikings CB Chris Cook injured his groin in the first half and didn't return. DT Kevin Williams got his right knee tangled up with OL Joe Looney early in the third quarter — a play the Vikings were considering sending to the league for review. ... 49ers RB LaMichael James injured an elbow. OLB Cam Johnson sustained a third-quarter shoulder injury and didn't return.