When SFI asked coach Dennis Erickson about his team's struggles so far during the preseason, and what specific areas he's looking at for drastic improvement in Thursday's exhibition finale against San Diego, he immediately pointed toward the most obvious area. Defense, of course. The Niners rank 32nd in the NFL – dead last – in total defense entering the final days of preseason games. "Probably the most glaring thing is big plays, pass and run," Erickson said. "We've given up some big plays in the preseason. We have to control that. The first two preseason games, they didn't run the ball really well on us, but obviously they did against Minnesota. That is the first thing you have to stop in this league. There is no question about that. Third down, it wasn't very good in the first preseason game. It was very good in the second preseason game. Third preseason game, it wasn't very good. They probably didn't have very many third downs. Stopping the big plays and stopping the run are the two biggest concerns." Erickson has got that right. The Niners rank 30th in the league in stopping the run and have another dead-last 32nd ranking against the pass. Combine those two, and you get the impression that Niners haven't stopped anything or anybody on defense. A few more of the ugly numbers: San Francisco ranks 31st in average yards allowed per play, 31st in sacks per play, 27th in stopping opponents on third down, 28th in first downs allowed per game, and 31st in points allowed. Wow! It's a good thing these games don't count. And an even better thing these numbers don't count. The Niners' leaders in sacks so far – with one each – are a rookie safety and a third-string defensive end. Rookie cornerback Mike Adams has the team's only interception, and Jimmy Williams has the only fumble recovery. The Niners have five turnovers themselves, and only two NFL teams are worse in turnover differential. Things are better on offense, which is a good sign, since the Niners have used several of their top performers sparingly this summer. But they're 27th in net punt average with rookie Andy Lee's 30.5-yard net average through three games ranking among the NFL's worst. But look at the bright side: There still is one more exhibition to go. Or could that be the dark side? With the numbers the Niners have put up this preseason, one has to wonder.
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