State of the team
Through the midway point in the season, the 49ers' struggles have not been difficult to pin down. Everybody knows the team has spent no money on specialists in the kicking game. As a result, the 49ers have missed critical field goals and botched two holds on extra points in three of their narrow defeats. The kicking game has seen a steady dose of incompetence with since-departed kickers Jeff Chandler (although he never performed all that poorly) and Owen Pochman, as well as punter/holder Bill LaFleur, who is still employed by the team. While those three specialists have been directly involved in three losses, the 49ers' real problem this season is that their offense has not performed anywhere near expectations. The two men that the 49ers have come to rely upon are not having good seasons. Receiver Terrell Owens has cost himself $10 million in guaranteed money with his play this season in a contract year, according to 49ers consultant Bill Walsh in comments made two weeks ago on a stint as a radio talk-show host. And quarterback Jeff Garcia is admittedly playing well below the high standards he has set for himself. At 3-5, the 49ers do not have any time to waste. They face the Rams on Sunday at Candlestick Park in a game they have to win to keep any remaining hope alive for the playoffs. And they'll have to do it without key players such as Garcia and defensive end Andre Carter, who both will miss the game to rest injuries. The 49ers can probably only afford one more loss this season, and they still have road games against the Packers, Eagles, Ravens and upstart Bengals. The 49ers have not won on the road this season. "Nobody is happy with where we are at," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "I think all of us can coach better and play better. Jeff is a competitor and he has made some plays. I haven't been around him the last three years, but he has to continue to get better. But, again, we all have to." Garcia owns a 72.0 passer rating, which is the second-lowest mark through the first half of the season for a 49ers quarterback since 1981. He also owns the lowest mark, checking in with a 62.3 rating after the first eight games of the 1999 season after he was forced into action after the career-ending concussion Steve Young suffered. Garcia, 33, has been nursing a myriad of injuries this season, which culminated with a high sprain in his left ankle that will keep him out against the Rams and end his string of consecutive regular-season starts at 61. Garcia missed two exhibition games and two weeks of practice in training camp with a bulging disk in his back. During the regular season, he also has been hampered by a groin strain and a forearm bruise to his throwing arm that has affected his wrist and thumb. Garcia sustained his ankle sprain late in the first half last Sunday against the Cardinals and missed the final play of the first half and the team's first two possessions of the third quarter while he waited for a pain-killing injection to take effect. Fourth-year backup Tim Rattay will get his first career start in Garcia's place on Sunday. "Being the harshest critic of myself, I don't necessarily want to put the blame on my injuries," Garcia said. "I do believe I haven't played up to the level of expectations this year. I just have to continue to fight to improve and create better opportunities for myself. "It hasn't been the best first half of a season for me in comparison to the last three seasons. I'm sure the injuries have not allowed things to be as smooth this year, But those are just the obstacles I've had to deal with." Garcia is expected to be able to return after the team's bye week and, frankly, the rest should do him some good. Garcia said he was just beginning to round into feeling close to 100 percent when he sustained the ankle sprain. He said he hasn't felt any problems with his back for three weeks. Owens' problems are a little more difficult to pin down. Some in the organization have speculated that he is playing as if he does not want to get hurt before he expects his big payday on the free-agent market in the spring. When the 49ers suffered an early-season loss to the Rams, Owens absorbed the biggest hit of his career. Rams free safety Aeneas Williams knocked Owens to the turf, giving him a mild concussion. Those who have watched Owens over his career with the 49ers have noticed a distinct change in Owens' desire to catch passes in traffic since the hit. Unofficially, Owens has six dropped passes and failed to hang onto more than a handful of other catchable balls. NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES --- If you're under the impression the 49ers are down in the dumps after kicker Owen Pochman missed two field-goal attempts in the team's 16-13 overtime loss to the Cardinals, you are probably correct. Erickson admitted that he is having a difficult time getting over it. When asked if his team is dwelling on it, he figured the answer is probably "yes." "You can't help it. I did," Erickson said. "That's human nature. That's just how it is, as much as I hate to say it. You can dwell on it forever. I dwell on things from five years ago, if you lose a ball game." --- Garcia was laughing as he said it, but his words did give 49ers fans who have suffered through years of ineptitude in the kicking game something to think about. "Is Landon Donovan available?" Garcia said, referring to the soccer star who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes. "I hear Brandi Chastain's available, too." However, the 49ers decided to go with nine-year veteran Todd Peterson instead of either of the soccer players. --- For all his complaints about not seeing enough passes come his ways, Owens is a bigger part of his team's offense than any receiver in the league. Owens has been the target of 91 passes attempts. Torry Holt of the Rams ranks second in the league as the intended receiver of 74 pass attempts in seven games. Owens has 46 receptions for 619 yards and three touchdowns. Holt has caught 52 passes for 778 yards and eight touchdowns, and has achieved a first down on 82.7 percent of his receptions. Owens has gotten a first down on just 65.2 percent of his catches. --- With the signing of the right-footed Peterson, it means holder Bill LaFleur does not have to work with a lefty any more. LaFleur had never held for a left-footed kicker before Pochman's arrival on the scene six weeks ago. "I thought it would be hard but I knew I could do it and I still think I can do it," said LaFleur of holding for a lefty. "We had a little trouble with it at times and it's stuff you try to avoid and sometimes stuff happens that you don't want to happen." LaFleur messed up two perfect snaps on extra points, leading directly to two losses in the 49ers' last three games. --- When Erickson spoke to his team Wednesday to begin preparation for facing the Rams, he stressed the importance of everyone improving is play so that the 49ers can end the season on a high note. "Everybody has to do their job," Erickson said. "We can sit here and talk about the kick and all those things, and that's what it boiled down to obviously as you watch the game on TV, or as you guys watch it or as I watch it from the sideline. There were a lot of other things involved in that game, as far as how we played as a football team, not effort, but we made some mistakes that you can't make and win. So basically that was the message." --- Safety John Keith, whose career has been plagued by injuries since the 49ers made him a fourth-round draft choice in 2000, will go from the practice squad directly into the starting lineup. The 49ers are in a bind at safety, as starter Zack Bronson will miss at least one game with a bulging disk in his neck. The team's third safety, Ronnie Heard, is out for at least a month with torn ligament in his left knee. The fourth safety, first-year player Dwaine Carpenter, was kept around mainly for his special-teams play but even he is banged up with an Achilles strain. "I think John will be fine," Bronson said. "We have tremendous coaches. Brett Maxie and Jim Mora and the defensive coaches will coach him up and get them in defenses that he's comfortable with." --- Erickson said the offense wouldn't change with Rattay as the starting quarterback. Or, at least, he kind of said that. "Everything we do depends on how we protect and what we do in the running game," Erickson said. "Obviously with Jeff, you move him a little bit more. But Tim can move, too. What our plan is right now won't change regardless of who the quarterback is, but how we call plays might." --- Rookie left tackle Kwame Harris continues to show dramatic improvement as he gets extended playing time as a rookie because of injuries to projected starter Derrick Deese. Harris is not considered to be anywhere near Deese when it comes to pass-blocking, but Harris is better in the run game. When Deese is 100 percent, he will get his starting job back, Erickson said. The question, though, is when or if Deese will ever be 100 percent from a lingering right ankle sprain. BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- The number of place-kickers that the 49ers have employed in the past 11 seasons. The list since 1993 includes Mike Cofer, Doug Brien, Tony Zendejas, Jeff Wilkins, Gary Anderson, Wade Richey, Jose Cortez, Jeff Chandler, Owen Pochman and, now, Todd Peterson. QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are 3-5. We are in a huge hole. That is just it. That is just it. You would like to paint a pretty picture, but there isn't a pretty picture to paint right now." -- Erickson on the state of his team at the midway point in the season. GAME PLAN VS. RAMS: The 49ers have struggled with their offensive production this season. It seems the 49ers can move the ball effectively only when they are running the ball with force. If the 49ers are able to get some yards in the running game, especially when a team such as the Rams wants to play their two-deep zone defense, then that will eventually open it up for the passing game. Rattay gives the Niners a different dimension as a passer, but he is not nearly mobile as Garcia, so the 49ers might not use as many movement plays with Rattay this week. Instead, they will have to pound the ball at the Rams defense behind the lead blocking of fullback Fred Beasley. Running backs Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow have to take care of the football and hit the holes hard. Then, Rattay might be able to open things up with receiver Terrell Owens taking advantage of the Rams' young cornerbacks. The 49ers will have to be careful to design the game plan around things that Rattay can do successfully. The Niners will be wary of Rams free safety Aeneas Williams, who has been a major nemesis of the 49ers through the years. It was a hit by Williams on quarterback Steve Young that ended his career, and his big hit on Owens might have caused some of Owens' hesitation this season catching passes in traffic. Any time Rattay sees single coverage on Owens, he has to be able to get the ball out to him in a hurry. Defensively, the 49ers can't allow Rams quarterback Marc Bulger time to sit in the pocket and pick the 49ers apart. Defensive coordinator Jim Mora will dial up a variety of blitzes to get to get a few hits on Bulger. The 49ers could not stop the Cardinals' run game last week, as Marcel Shipp rushed for 165 yards on 35 carries. Whether it's Marshall Faulk making his return to the Rams lineup or Arlen Harris, the 49ers will have their hands full in trying to contain St. Louis' passing and running attacks.
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