Passing game going south

The 49ers promised better this season, but it just keeps getting worse. Their once-prolific passing game continues to plummet to new depths, and the stars of the show are struggling like never before. You can point to obvious reasons for this dramatic decline in performance.

The Niners sunk to 17th in the NFL this week in passing offense after quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Tim Rattay threw for 158 yards in a 44-6 loss at Baltimore. Rattay threw for only 142 yards the week before in a 20-10 loss at Green Bay.

That's the lowest the Niners have been ranked in that category this late in the season in recent memory, and it's a major reason those back-to-back road defeats dropped San Francisco to 5-7 and all but mathematically ended the playoff hopes of the defending NFC West champions.

General manager Terry Donahue said that injuries throughout the offensive unit have been to blame for the sputtering results of the team's heralded West Coast system, which was supposed to be revamped this year by the arrival of new head coach Dennis Erickson.

"The offensive team the last two weeks has obviously really struggled," Donahue said. "All of us in the organization are concerned that the offense hasn't been productive. Offense is execution, precision, synchronization. It's like a dance team. We've never had the same performers in the dance team all year long."

The Niners have been unable to dance because their dance director is having the worst season of his career.

After his four-interception game against Baltimore last week, Garcia's passer rating of 64.2 ranks 29th of the 33 NFL quarterbacks who qualify to be ranked in that category. The lopsided loss to the Ravens was the third time in nine starts this season Garcia failed to lead the Niners on a touchdown drive.

Garcia averaged just 3.86 yards a pass attempt against the Ravens, a horrible figure. He has averaged just 6.19 yards per pass this season.

But, as Garcia likes to point out, it's a team game. And he is hardly the only reason the offense is struggling.

The Niners have had constant change along their offensive line all season and have been without regular starting tight end Eric Johnson since the preseason. Garcia missed three games with an ankle injury before returning last week, and starting wide receivers Terrell Owens and Tai Streets rarely practice more than once a week due to nagging injuries.

That lack of continuity is being felt more now than ever in an offense that has produced 456 yards the past two weeks, by far San Francisco's worst two-game stretch of the season.

Streets practices only once a week due to tendinitis in both knees. He has been held without a catch in two of San Francisco's last three games. After producing 24 receptions for 324 yards (a 13.5 average) through the Niners' first six games, Streets has just 11 receptions for 107 yards (9.7 average) in the past six games.

Owens also practices sporadically due to a groin injury that has hampered him since last year. He had three receptions for 23 yards last week, producing a 7.7 average that was his lowest of the season, and has slipped to seventh among the NFC's leading receivers. The three-time All-Pro finished second in the conference last year.

"I think it hurts everything that we do a little bit when they're not full speed," Erickson said. "And they haven't been."

Garcia noted that it has been difficult to find a rhythm with his top targets because of the lack of practice time. He spends more time during the week developing a rapport with Nos. 3 and 4 receivers Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd, and those receivers may become more prominent in the offense the final quarter of the season as the Niners attempt to put some spark back in their aerial attack.

"Those are things that you have to look at," Garcia said. "I really believe that because of the injuries to the other two guys, and the sense of not allowing them to necessarily be on the practice field as much as they would like, I think it's probably one of those situations where (Lloyd and Wilson) are going to be given a few more opportunities, and I think they'll be ready to take advantage of those."

In spot duty as the team's fourth receiver, Lloyd has displayed big-play ability and leads the 49ers with an average of 15.4 yards a catch.

Lloyd played 37 snaps last week to Streets' 31 and will continue to alternate with Streets at split end in two- and three-receiver sets. Lloyd's 32-yard reception against Baltimore was the only catch by a San Francisco wide receiver longer than nine yards. Wilson is third on the team with 25 receptions for 257 yards.

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