Secondary could key playoff push

When the 49ers return to work next week to begin their quest for a playoff berth, their relatively longshot hopes will be bolstered by a defensive secondary that is better for the challenges it endured - and responded to - during the team's first nine games.

Though San Francisco's pass defense has shown incremental progress since the Niners began rebuilding their secondary in 2000, it had still been a weak link for the team even into the beginning of this season.

But at midseason this year, the Niners were a top 10 team in the NFL rankings in fewest passing yards allowed - a far cry from their bottom-third rankings of the past five years. It's a testament to the disciplined play as a unit of starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph and safeties Zack Bronson and Tony Parrish.

If there's a name that stands out in that group, it is Rumph. That's not because he has been the standout of the starting unit. That distinction belongs to Plummer and Parrish, the star of San Francisco's secondary last year. Plummer is third in the NFC with four interceptions and, for the most part, has been a solid coverage corner this year. Parrish has again been the rock of the safety tandem and has two interceptions.

But after a rocky start that brought back visions of his struggles last year, Rumph has been a revelation during the past month with his heady, aggressive play. He has been tested often and responded to the point where not only is he no longer a liability, but he now is contributing to the success of the entire defense.

Rumph is making plays in coverage (two interceptions) and as a surprise blitzer from the edge (two sacks). He has blossomed as the starter at right cornerback in place of Jason Webster, who has missed the first nine games with a knee injury.

That begs the question: Should Rumph remain the starter when Webster returns? Webster has tested his knee this week and is expected to resume practicing with the team next week when it returns from its bye. He should be ready to play Nov. 17 against the Steelers.

"We'll just have to see how he is this week when he runs and he is out there," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "How he backpedals and all the different things that he needs to do. Next week, we are going to work him in lightly, obviously, and see how he is. We'll have a little bit of an idea how he is this week and that will dictate how much time we'll give him in the Pittsburgh week, as far as if he is going to play or not."

The Niners should plan on keeping Rumph as the starter the rest of the season, working Webster into secondary coverage packages as he progresses. Webster's experience, quickness and ball savvy will be an upgrade over Rashad Holman, Jimmy Williams and others who have seen time as the third cornerback.

Injuries to Bronson and his replacement, Ronnie Heard, allowed John Keith an opportunity to show last week against the Rams that he still can contribute at this level despite his many injuries. Keith, out of necessity, made the leap last week from the practice squad to start alongside Parrish and he had five tackles against the Rams and no major breakdowns in coverage.

Bronson is expected back against the Steelers and, with the extra week of rest and Webster close to contributing, the secondary should be as healthy as it has been all season when the Niners return to the field.

And that will be big for the team's postseason push. The Niners have little margin for error the rest of the way, and good defense - particularly good pass defense - is the best way to protect that margin.

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