Fixing the defense

After what had seemed like a summer of incremental progress, the 49ers defense got roughed up pretty good by the NFL's reigning No. 1 offense Friday, making it appear San Francisco is far from being level with the league's best. But better now than later. As bad as it looked against the Minnesota Vikings, whose front-line performers dominated into the second half, the Niners are sticking to the notion it was just a preseason learning experience, and they'll be better for it come September.

The Aug. 21 performance of the Niners' first-team defense against Chicago left the impression that the unit was on its way to becoming as good as the Niners hope it will be and need it to be this season. Then, six days later, it matched up with the formidable Vikings, and got bullied all over again.

Just like when Minnesota ran up a 28-0 halftime lead in a real game last September at the Metrodome, the Vikes used their big boys up front to blow out holes along the line of scrimmage and give quarterback Daunte Culpepper all day to throw. With Minnesota's fine skill players executing on cue, the Vikes rolled to a 16-0 advantage at halftime this time. But it actually could have been much worse, as Minnesota had a 326-61 edge in total yards at the intermission. That's domination.

But after reviewing the films, coach Dennis Erickson remain undeterred that debacle is an indication of things to come in 2004. While giving the Vikings credit for making plays, executing, and simply playing better, he said there were several factors involved in his team's regressive performance.

--- The line, still learning the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Willy Robinson's system, was caught out of position as the Vikings beat them to the punch. That left holes where there were supposed to be bodies wearing 49ers uniforms. "A lot of it was gaps, covering gaps," Erickson said.

--- The Niners feel they have to slide their defensive line this year to take advantage of their speed and also cover for their lack of size in the interior. "We knew the size of our line and we've known that for a long time," Erickson said. "Obviously, with Isaac (Sopoaga) not around, we are going to have to move our front. We can't sit in there all the time and play. We've got to move them. That is what we have to do on defense and that is what Willy is trying to do - and what we aren't getting done right now."

--- That, as Friday's game illustrated, still is a work in progress. "We've got to move them, we've got to slant them and we've got to do different things," Erickson said. "So, Andre (Carter) and John (Engelberger) at ends are guys that are very good athletes. So we've got to do that same thing with Anthony (Adams) and (Bryant Young) inside. Can we sit in there against people all the time? No, we can't do that. If you slant a lot, you've got to make sure that you fill with your backers and that everybody is in the right gap. That's the biggest thing. Again, you've got to change up the slants so they don't know where it is coming from all of the time."

There still is time to correct those problems. Erickson says it can be done and also says not to take Friday's hammering as a portent of things to come.

Erickson said there were three miscommunications in the secondary that hurt the team, and a couple more at linebacker that contributed to the perception that the Niners looked helpless on defense. Those problems should be alleviated when the team's two best players on those units - outside linebacker Julian Peterson and strong safety Tony Parrish - are back as integral parts of the defense.

But Erickson's not blind. He knows the Niners have to get tougher inside, too, to stop the NFL's best offenses. They were beaten a combined five times by four teams that ranked in the league's top 10 in offense last year - Minnesota (1), Green Bay (4), Seattle (6) and St. Louis (9) - and each of those teams featured strong offensive lines and/or powerful running games.

"A lot of it was the discipline of the defense," Erickson concluded about the Minnesota performance, "and then some of it was they knocked us off the football. That is what happened. We were on the field a long time, but that is something we can control on defense, too, by getting off the field."

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