New Young like the old Young

Just when you think Bryant Young might finally be washed up, he comes out and delivers along the defensive line with performance reminiscent of his 1990s heyday. A lot of things have gone wrong so far this season for the 49ers, but the rejuvenated play of Young is one thing that has gone right.

The 11th-year veteran, the only player remaining on the roster from San Francisco's last Super Bowl championship team, has turned back the clock so far this season to the days when he was considered one of the league's dominant defensive tackles.

"You look at him on video right now, he's still a great player," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said Wednesday. "Right now, he's playing at a tremendous level. In the first three football games, he's played as good as any defensive line I've seen out there (in the league). He's playing to that kind of level."

Those things used to be expected from Young, who established himself as a potential Hall of Famer with dominant play throughout his first five NFL seasons. On his way to first-team All-Pro status in 1998, Young suffered a career-threatening leg fracture, but he bounced back from that gruesome injury to quickly regain his former stature.

He was second-team All-Pro in 1999 and 2001, and made the Pro Bowl in 2001 and 2002. But his play began to slip at the end of 2002. Hampered by injuries, Young often looked like just an average player last year, and a shell of the disruptive force in the middle he once was.

But at age 32, Young looks like a new player in 2004. Or the old player he used to be.

He has been a bull force in the middle, creating inside push in the pass rush and also plugging gaps in the team's vastly improved rushing defense. That was perceived to be a major weakness for the Niners entering the season, but after three games, San Francisco ranks fifth in the NFL against the run and third in rushing average allowed per play.

Young, using his quickness and power, has been a major factor in that surprising success. He's fifth on the team with 14 tackles and has forced a fumble. It was his hit on Deuce McAllister that sent the star New Orleans tailback to the bench in the first quarter of the Sept. 19 game against the Saints.

Young says the big difference for him has been good health, something that evaded him the past two seasons.

"Compared to last year I feel a whole lot better," Young said. "That's been the biggest thing right there, is staying healthy. It's hard to be 100 percent playing this game. But comparing to last year, I feel definitely a lot better than I did at this point."

The Niners are making it a point to pace Young, keeping him fresh so he doesn't wear down and become susceptible to injuries because he is in the game for too long of a stretch. That hasn't been easy to do because of other injuries along the defensive line and the transitory state of the unit, which has seen several reserves come and go since the end of training camp.

But Young and Anthony Adams have been constants at tackle, giving the Niners perhaps their stoutest tandem up front since Young was paired with a fading Dana Stubblefield in 2001.

"We just have to make sure with Bryant that we take care of him, that he's not playing 50 or 60 snaps a game," Erickson said. "We just have to make sure we keep him productive by keeping him fresh and keeping him healthy."

So far, so good. And now that Young appears to be back in top form again, the questions no longer are about when he plans to retire. They're about how much longer he can play as an impact force in the trenches. There's a distinction there.

"I'm just taking it one year at a time," Young said. "The thing for me is just staying healthy. As long as I continue to love this game, and have some fun, then I'm going to play. I'm not making any predictions on how long I want to play. It's just one year at a time. And that's how I've always done it from my rookie year, because you never know what's going to happen."

What's happening now is Bryant Young is playing some of his best football in three seasons. On this young and developing team, there certainly is plenty of room for that.

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