Niners need Carter back in action

Andre Carter is 265 pounds of lean, chiseled muscle, an imposing physical specimen who was eager to perform on the field this season as formidable as he looks off it. Back problems in September have changed all that, but Carter says "I consider myself not being hurt," and he is pointing toward a return after the bye week that would be a huge boost to the 49ers' banged-up defense.

Right now, Carter only can continue to rest and wonder what might have been this year without a series of setbacks with his back - and look forward to what will be once he finally is able to return.

"With this thing, it's just a daily thing," Carter said. "It's just one of those medical things. It's not like I twisted my knee or elbow."

But in many ways, it's worse than a nagging knee sprain or elbow strain. Carter, who was hindered by a bulging disk in his back last year, experienced abrupt numbness and pain after starting in the team's Sept. 12 opener against Atlanta, a game in which he had one tackle and one quarterback hurry before his back began going out of service again.

Team doctors originally believed it was a flare-up of his disk problem, but as the pain sensation persisted, they discovered a cyst in his back. The cyst was relatively harmless, but Carter had surgery to remove it two weeks ago, making it uncertain when he'll be able to return to action. He has missed San Francisco's past five games, and the Niners' pass rush has been ineffective without him.

There's not much Carter can do about it at the moment. He still has a small hole in his back because of the surgery. He could heal quickly this week and be ready to practice next week when the Niners return from their bye, and possibly even return to the starting lineup for the Oct. 31 game at Chicago.

Then again, nobody really knows. It could be well into November before Carter plays again.

"With an injury like this, you don't want any setbacks that can hurt you a lot longer than one week," Carter said. "I know for myself that I'm not rushing to get back. It could be the Chicago game, or it could be longer."

Carter, who keeps his body in premium physical condition, is a little perplexed by the injury. He might give more attention to keeping himself in shape than any other player on the team.

"I've always taken great care of my body," he said. "Resting, stretching - all that. It's definitely a new experience. I've never had any crazy injuries. It's amazing how something so small can affect you."

Nobody is amazed at how the loss of Carter has impacted San Francisco's defense. The 49ers had their second game without a sack in four weeks during last Sunday's game against the New York Jets, and they've only produced three sacks during that four-game span.

While John Engelberger has come on strong at left end recently after his own struggles with injuries, the Niners haven't been giving him much support in Carter's place. Carter's replacements, Brandon Whiting and Otis Leverette, have been battling injury problems of their own.

Consequently, the Niners enter their bye week with just 2.5 sacks - total - from their entire defensive line through six games.

Carter is just the guy who can change all that. He experienced something of a slump last year with only 6.5 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures after establishing himself as one the NFL's premier young edge rushers with 12.5 sacks and 27 pressures during his sophomore season of 2002.

But both Carter and the Niners were excited about the possibilities this year as San Francisco planned to move him around more often in the defensive scheme to take advantage of his talents and not leave him lining up every down against tackles who may considerably outweigh him. Carter entered training camp feeling stronger and more explosive than ever.

Now, after the loss of All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson, the San Francisco defense needs Carter in the worse way to provide some of the play-making ability as an edge rusher that the Niners currently are lacking.

"Andre has a chance (to come back for the Chicago game), but we'll just have to wait and see," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said.

After five games on the sidelines - four of them painful-to-watch defeats - Carter is getting tired of waiting.

"If I come back for the Chicago game, I have to be more determined, have more desire, far more than I ever dreamed of - being a leader and making plays on the field," Carter said.

The Niners, obviously, can't wait, either.

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