Sad state of the defense

Yes, the 49ers will field a defense Sunday when they play host to the Arizona Cardinals. What kind of shape that defense will be in remains to be seen.

The Niners are reeling on defense after yet another round of injuries rocked the unit during Sunday's loss to the St. Louis Rams.

The 49ers will have to wait until Wednesday to see who can practice and who can't, giving them a better idea of who legitimately can be counted upon to play against the Cardinals in what has become a must-win game for a winless team.

But here's the bad news the Niners already know: They'll be without two more key starters and could have another unable to play against the Cards.

Right cornerback Mike Rumph is likely out for the remainder of the season with a fractured right arm that will require surgery this week. Derek Smith, the team's leading tackler this year and each of the past three seasons, has ligament damage in his right leg and could miss at least three weeks.

And as of today, it appears left defensive end John Engelberger is on the doubtful side of probable, leaving the Niners seriously thin at that position.

As coach Dennis Erickson said Monday, Brandon Whiting is now San Francisco's healthiest defensive end, and that's a scary thought considering Whiting just returned to the field two weeks ago from spring shoulder surgery, and he has been hampered by a bad back.

But Engelberger has an abdominal strain that could make him unable to play, and backup Otis Leverette has a high ankle sprain that has him doubtful. Starting right end Andre Carter - who hasn't played since the opener because of a bulging disk in his back - had surgery Monday to remove a cyst from his back and is unlikely to return until November.

So that leaves the Niners with... well, exactly who to play defensive end?

"We've got to take a good look at where we're at and what we're going to do," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "John could be back. We could move Tony Brown out there. There are some things that we can do. We can move Bryant Young out there if we had to. We can play some 30 defense. There are some different things we are looking at right now to handle that."

The Niners signed New Orleans discard Melvin Williams on Tuesday to help at end. He could be seeing major minutes on Sunday, and maybe even starting. Imagine that.

Replacing Smith - who has been arguably the team's MVP so far - will be a little easier because the Niners have strong depth at linebacker. Jeff Ulbrich will slide over to Smith's middle LB position and Jamie Winborn will take Ulbrich's spot on the right side. This will make the Niners faster at linebacker, but Smith has been so steady and heady that it's unrealistic to expect his absence won't hurt the defense.

Shawntae Spencer moves into Rumph's starting slot at right corner, and where this hurts the Niners is in the ripple effect it will have on the secondary.

Spencer, actually, has played well for a rookie corner and is getting better all the time. But now the Niners will have to go with Jimmy Williams as the full-time third cornerback, and Williams has not held up well in that role when given the opportunity so far this year.

Left cornerback Ahmed Plummer and free safety Ronnie Heard also are nursing injuries, but they are expected to play against the Cardinals/

The Niners are considering adding another DB to the roster and worked out Clint Finley and Omar Lowe on Tuesday, though neither was offered a contract.

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