The pleasant surprises
1. ERIC JOHNSON: Nobody doubted that he could be a quality pass-catching tight end, but nobody expected that he would carry the passing game as the team's go-to receiver and become the NFL's leading receiver after six weeks with 45 catches. Johnson has become a legitimate offensive weapon and downfield threat who has displayed a consistent ability to elude defenders in one-on-one coverage. He also has shown tremendous toughness by fighting through injuries - not to mention a lot of heavy hits from defenders - to stay in the lineup. 2. SHAWNTAE SPENCER: The Niners were hoping Spencer, the second of their two second-round draft choices in April, could beat out veteran Jimmy Williams for the third cornerback role and contribute in secondary coverage packages this season. Spencer's way ahead of that schedule at the bye week, firmly entrenched in the starting lineup as the team's right cornerback in place of the injured Mike Rumph. It's fair to say that Spencer, who has started three of San Francisco's first six games, has played as well as any cornerback on the team so far this season. 3. THE DEFENSIVE TACKLE TANDEM: Starters Bryant Young and Anthony Adams have held up surprisingly well in the middle, particularly considering they have had to play a lot of downs with very little depth behind them. They have been a steady force against the run and have occupied blockers on passing downs to give other defenders more opportunities to make plays. Considered a significant area of weakness entering the season, Young and Adams have made the middle interior one of the team's defensive strengths. 4. TIM RATTAY: Rattay has bounced back from significant injuries in the spring, summer and early season to become the NFC's third-rated quarterback after six weeks. Rattay seemed doomed to a lackluster season after he separated his shoulder in the season opener - which forced him to miss the next two games - but he roared back with a series of promising performances. Despite his many setbacks already in 2004, he has taken command of the offense, and is ahead of where many thought he would be at this point. 5. SPECIAL TEAMS: They have been steady and solid in several areas, particularly coverage, which is saying something since there are several new, younger players on these units. Rookie punter/holder Andy Lee has displayed some first-year inconsistency but overall has been more than adequate. 6. ARNAZ BATTLE: Speaking of special teams, Battle has given a significant jolt to the return game, particularly punt returns, where he ranks second in the NFC and fourth in the NFL with an 11.2-yard average. He also has made an impact when given an opportunity as the fourth receiver. His 71-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arizona and his 65-yard reception to set up a touchdown against New York are the Niners' two longest plays with the football so far this season. 7. DEFENSIVE LINE COACH DAN QUINN: In his second season guiding the defensive line, Quinn has done an outstanding job of holding together a unit that has been decimated by injuries. Several coaches and players have given credit to Quinn for getting the most of a defensive line that has already employed 18 different players since the Niners cut down to their original 53-man roster in early September. 8. JAMIE WINBORN: Winborn always has had star ability, but he had some questions to answer after coming back from a career-threatening neck injury - his second season-ending injury in as many years. But he has remained healthy and stepped in with his usual fiery intensity and play-making ability when the team needed it most after injuries to starters Derek Smith and Julian Peterson. Winborn's versatility and ability to make plays in space has at least helped somewhat in making up for the huge loss of Peterson. 9. CURTIS CONWAY: Conway wasn't even a lock to make the team when training camp began, and nobody was really sure how he would fit into the receiving pecking order with the Niners hoping to push along their young receivers. But the 12th-year veteran has been a factor since Day 1 and has stepped in as perhaps San Francisco's steadiest and most productive wideout through six games. He leads all the team's wide receivers with 25 receptions for 266 yards, and he has played well as both a starter and reserve. He started three of the first six games, leading the team's wideouts in receptions three times, including an eight-catch, 112-yard performance in Week 2 against New Orleans while starting in place of Cedrick Wilson. 10. KYLE KOSIER: The erstwhile starting right guard, Kosier has held up better at left tackle than the man he replaced there in the starting lineup, Kwame Harris. Kosier will eventually give way to Harris after the bye, but he looks like he's a legitimate backup tackle in this league, something of which the Niners certainly need to have around in an emergency, regardless of how much they may need him - or play him - at guard.
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