Revolving door hasn't hurt rush defense

Surprisingly, the revolving door that is the 49ers' 2004 defensive line is slamming shut on opposing ground games despite the many changes that rocked the unit during September. The Niners have had 15 defensive linemen on their 53-man roster so far, an amazing total considering San Francisco ranks fifth in the league stopping the run entering this week's games.

The Niners also are third in the NFL in average yards allowed per rush, and that's a tribute to their fast, aggressive linebackers and their starting tackles who held up so well up front through the season's opening month. A month earlier, you never would have been able to guess that would happen. The Niners ranked 32nd - dead last - in the league in rushing defense while being trampled on the ground in four winless preseason games.

That also happened on occasion last year when the Niners were mauled by the bigger offensive lines and the better rushing offenses they faced. But San Francisco also had several quality efforts against the run in 2003, and that has been the unexpected trend so far this year, particularly considering the way the team struggled during the summer and has had so much personnel transition since then.

"We evaluated a lot of things in the preseason," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "We screwed around with the 3-4 (alignment) some. We looked at it and found that we didn't really have the personnel to play that as a base. A lot of that (preseason) running was done against that defense and screwing around with different things. We've gone back to our 4-3 package and that's why we're playing better."

Are they ever. The Niners have struggled in other areas on defense, but not in stopping the run. They're allowing an average of just 86 yards rushing through their first three games. One of those first three opponents was Atlanta, which leads the NFL in rushing offense.

They'll have an opportunity this week to improve further on that number when they play the St. Louis Rams, who are - statistically, at least - the worst rushing team the Niners have faced so far this season.

"We're playing together and understanding our responsibilities as a defense," said 11th-year tackle Bryant Young, a four-time All-Pro whose resurgent play up front has sparked the run defense. "We're playing within the confines of our defense and just going out there and having fun. That's the big thing. You can get so wrapped up in overanalyzing things and forget to go out there and have fun. We're doing it as a defense and as individuals, but we just have to be a little more consistent and do a better job of eliminating touchdowns."

The 49ers are doing a good job of eliminating the opponent's top rusher from becoming a significant factor each week. San Francisco has not allowed a 100-yard rusher for 20 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the league.

In their opener, the 49ers limited Atlanta's Warrick Dunn to 63 yards rushing and a 3.3 average. New Orleans' Aaron Stecker had 41 yards and a 2.7 average in Week 2. Last week, San Francisco limited Seattle's Shaun Alexander to 52 yards and a 2.7 average.

Can the 49ers keep it up? Well, perhaps they can if they stay healthy. Because it is their core defensive linemen doing the work up front with a changing cast of reserves behind them. The Niners drafted Samoan strongman Isaac Sopoaga in the fourth round to add bulk in the middle, fortify their run game and become the third man in the tackle rotation with starters Young and Anthony Adams. But Sopoaga never made it to the 2004 starting gate because of back problems and was placed on injured reserve.

Since the beginning of September, the Niners have gone through Michael Landry, Josh Shaw, Riddick Parker and Atkins in an attempt to find some quality depth behind Young and Adams. Chris Demaree, Josh Cooper and Dennis Johnson also have come and gone at end.

The team is now employing Daleroy Stewart at tackle, Otis Leverette at end and swing tackle Tony Brown (who also can play end) as the top line reserves. John Engelberger and Brandon Whiting have played well against the run as the starting ends, while regular Andre Carter - not the strongest run defender - has missed the past two games with a back problem and is unlikely to play this week against the Rams.

Leverette and Brown look like keepers, and Stewart is the latest new face that gets an opportunity to place himself in the same category. But nobody can be sure who will still be around once end Andrew Williams returns from his broken leg later this month, though the Niners have to like what they've been seeing so far in their play against the run.

Well, almost, at least. The strong showing stopping the run hasn't yet provided the Niners with the most important number of all.

"We haven't won, and that's one of the biggest stats right there," Young said. "Despite how (well) people say we're playing, the only thing I care about is winning. I'd trade a 200-yard rushing game against the defense for a win."

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