Praising D on the day after

Niners coach Dennis Erickson saw some things he liked and some he didn't after taking a second look Sunday at Saturday's 20-13 preseason loss at Chicago. But the play of his front-line defense definitely fell into the first category. If defense is going to have to carry San Francisco this season - and that's beginning to look like the case, at least in the early going - then the Niners appear on their way on that side of the ball after stuffing the Bears with their starters.

Though the Bears scored 10 points in the first half - when the Niners went mostly with their defensive starters with a few top reserves sprinkled in - those 10 points were basically handed to them by San Francisco turnovers.

The more telling statistic was this: 3.3. That's how many yards per play the Bears averaged during their seven first-half drives, four of which ended with punts and one with the end of the half. The Bears scored their only touchdown after a muffed punt gave them the ball at the San Francisco 18, and they also had a gift field goal after an interception set up Chicago in San Francisco territory on its first possession.

"Defensively, we had great improvement," Erickson said. "The starting group (stood out). Communication was better. We were more disciplined in every aspect of what we did. We played hard. Now we're just learning our scheme and gaps to be filled. We're playing a lot better as a team on defense."

The 49ers did not have one defensive penalty, and have had only one in two preseason games. They also allowed the Bears to convert on just five of 15 third-down situations, a 33 percent conversion rate that the Niners certainly will take after the way they've struggled in that area the past two seasons.

The Bears were limited to just 105 net yards passing on the night as they were dominated statistically. The Niners held a 412-241 advantage in total yards, with the final outcome swaying on Chicago's 5-0 edge in turnovers produced.

The Niners received several standout performances in their secondary, notably by cornerbacks Jimmy Williams (game-high six tackles, one pass defensed), Mike Rumph, Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer.

Erickson also singled out the play of defensive end Andre Carter, safeties Ronnie Heard and Keith Lewis and defensive linemen Michael Landry and Riddick Parker.

--- Lewis, by the way, will move into the starting lineup at strong safety for the rest of the preseason in place of injured regular Tony Parrish, who could return to practice the week leading to the Sept. 12 season opener against Atlanta, but won't play again until then at the earliest.

--- Rumors are circulating that All-Pro linebacker will end his holdout and return to the team this week, perhaps as early as Monday, but Erickson said he has not talked to his star linebacker and has no information regarding those rumors. "I have no idea what's going on with that," Erickson said. "What I continue to say is that for him to get in now so he can learn the defense. The different thing that we are doing is going to benefit both him and us. Because if he doesn't, there's going to be a learning process for him. If he came in the last week, then we'd have to simplify what we do and that would hurt us. At this point, it's in the best interest of both parties, the earlier he gets in the better we both are."

--- Rookie punter Andy Lee, who has looked strong during training camp, has had two lackluster performances in the preseason, and his edge over Andy Groom appears to be closing. Erickson indicated the next two exhibition games against Minnesota and San Diego could decide who the Niners take with them into the regular season as their new punter. "We're going to let them continue to compete," Erickson said. "It's been wide open. Andy Lee was ahead and now it's kind of closing a little bit. (Lee) has punted really (well) during camp until last week. He's got a really strong leg and we just continue to watch him and see where he's at. We'll try to give both of them shots on Friday. I would expect one of those two to punt on opening day."

--- Erickson is expecting better showings from both on Friday, when the Niners play inside a dome after two preseason games in the notoriously windy conditions of San Francisco's Candlestick Park and Chicago's Soldier Field. "Yeah, I'm concerned about those conditions there (in Minnesota)," Erickson joked. "That wind really blows out of that one end zone, especially when they turn on the air conditioner and they open the door."

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