Niners drown Dolphins with defense

<P>SAN FRANCISCO – Garrison Hearst and a cloud of defense. That, in a nutshell, tells you just about all you need to know about the resilient 49ers' latest bounce-back victory at 3Com Park. Oh, you might want to throw Kevan Barlow's name in there, too. </P>

And when talking about that San Francisco defense, you might want to break it down by its parts. There were so many that contributed on Sunday afternoon against the Miami Dolphins. Six sacks of Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler. Four Miami turnovers. A tidy 103 yards rushing by Hearst, pushing him over 1,000 yards for the season. Two powerful touchdown bursts by Barlow, the barreling rookie.

Crunch those numbers together, and you have the Niners' crunching 21-0 victory over the Dolphins before a sellout crowd of 68,223 that definitely is smelling playoffs again for the first time since 1998.

 "It's the second shutout in a row here at home," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said, summing up a victory in which there was plenty of room for praise. "Our defense, certainly, needs to be commended. This is just a fantastic step that we've taken."

The Niners (10-3), reaching 10 wins again in a season after recording just 10 wins combined the past two seasons, all but locked up a playoff berth with three games still remaining in the season. They also took plenty of steps away from last week's disheartening loss in St. Louis, a defeat that threatened to linger into the team's important December stretch run, but instead appeared to be a distant memory

Sunday with the Dolphins on the other side of the ball. And speaking of fantastic steps, Hearst took yet another Sunday in a season full of them. He ploughed through a Miami defense ranked fifth in the NFL, lugging the football a season-high 26 times to become the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards after missing all of the previous two seasons.

 "What matters to me the most is winning," Hearst said. Hearst certainly did his part toward that end, pounding the Miami defense relentlessly and chewing time off the clock as the Niners let him take over in the second half with quarterback Jeff Garcia nursing bruised ribs. It seemed as though the ball was glued to Hearst in the final two quarters as the Niners attempted only three passes after halftime. Hearst carried 16 times in the second half, helping the Niners to dominate the clock and the game. The Niners had the ball for more than 39 minutes while Miami's time of possession was a mere 20:48.

 "You just look at what the O-line did," Hearst said, diverting the praise from himself. "It was just a smash. That's what those guys live for. I'm just following the holes those guys are making. Next thing you know, it's first down here, first down there. That was the key right there."

But Mariucci was having none of it. Sure, the line blocked great. But somebody had to find the holes, then run through them, then take punishing hits from a frustrated Miami defense, then keep coming back for more. That was Hearst, just as it has been all year in his remarkable comeback from a career-threatening ankle injury that wiped out his 1999 and 2000 seasons. Hearst now has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his three active seasons with the 49ers, giving the Niners a 1,000-yard rusher for a team-record fifth consecutive season. Hearst finished the afternoon with 1,042 yards rushing this season, bettering the 1,019 yards he gained during his first season with San Francisco in 1997. He still has three games left to try to reach the team-record 1,570 yards he gained in 1998 before he was injured in a playoff game that season.

"Can you imagine that? I mean, think about it," Mariucci said. "For us to think that he was going to be this dominating, and this on top of his game after all he's been through, with five surgeries, it's just a fantastic comeback. He's so productive. What a story he is. And, boy, did we need him today. Because we weren't going to throw the ball very often, and we needed him to run the ball effectively."

The Niners, leading 14-0 at halftime after a 2-yard scoring run by Barlow and Garcia's 12-yard scoring strike to rookie tight end Eric Johnson, strayed away from their passing game after Garcia bruised ribs on his right side late in the second quarter. The injury began flaring up in the third quarter as Garcia completed his only two throws during a 17-play, 98-yard scoring drive that turned the game into a rout before the fourth quarter had even arrived.

 "I was wincing a little bit with every throw," Garcia said. But not with every handoff.

The Niners protected Garcia by simply having him give the ball to Hearst, Barlow (39 yards rushing on 14 carries) and Terry Jackson (17 on two carries). Hearst carried seven times and Barlow six times – including a one-yard burst into the end zone – as the Niners took more than 11 minutes off the clock with their marathon scoring drive.

 "Once I got to the sidelines after that drive, the third quarter was just about over," Hearst said with a smile. So was the game. The Niners' resurgent defense made sure of that. They harassed Fiedler unmercifully, pressuring him more than a dozen times while coming up with a season-high six sacks, 2.5 of them by Chike Okeafor. Free safety Zack Bronson ended Miami's first and last drives with interceptions – he now has five on the season – and Jason Webster also recorded his third pick. Safety Ronnie Heard blasted Fiedler on a backside blitz that resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Julian Peterson.

 "The pass rush was the main cause of our great performance," said safety Lance Schulters, who, like Bronson and Webster, batted away two passes as the Niners limited Miami to just 174 yards of offense. "We just attacked more," said rookie end Andre Carter, who was credited with half a sack but had at least five quarterback pressures.

 "Once that ball was snapped, we attacked the quarterback. Before the game (defensive coordinator) Jim Mora told us the month of December is the time for the defense to make a stand. And we did that today. Everything was in sync and now we have to continue to stay in sync for the rest of the season."

On the first day of the rest of their season Sunday, the 49ers' defense definitely was all of that, with the offense running right alongside.

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