Breakdown at the bye: Defense
WHAT'S GONE RIGHT: Defensive tackle Bryant Young has had a resurgence in his 11th season, and he has displayed occasional glimpses of his previous All-Pro form in the middle trenches. He has combined with second-year player Anthony Adams - who also has come on from last season - to give the Niners an inside presence that is holding its own in an area that was expected to be a significant weakness. The linebacker unit was playing tremendously in several aspects before its two leading performers - Julian Peterson and Derek Smith - went down with injuries. Even without those two, the unit still has played well and has done its part to hold the defense together. Jeff Ulbrich has played well all season and became the anchor of the unit at middle linebacker after Smith went down. Given extended playing time because of the injuries, Jamie Winborn received more opportunities to show his stuff and has taken advantage of it as one of the defense's top playmakers. After a slow start, John Engelberger fought through injuries to make an impact at left end. After scanning the waiver wire for reinforcements, the Niners have received some adequate play from linemen Tony Brown and Otis Leverette, which has helped fill the huge void at right end and the weak depth behind Young and Adams. Brandon Whiting finally returned in Week 3 and started four games in place of the injured Andre Carter. In his first start in place of All-Pro Peterson, Brandon Moore had eight tackles and displayed some promise as a legitimate force in the linebacker rotation. Rookie Shawntae Spencer has been, simply, one of the team's top defenders and its steadiest player in the secondary. The second-round draft pick has started three games at right cornerback in place of Mike Rumph and has been a sure tackler and steady force in coverage. Ahmed Plummer has had mixed results in coverage, but when he has been on his game he's made some fine plays on the balls. Tony Parrish has had his moments as a hard-hitting force at strong safety. WHAT'S GONE WRONG: The place to start here is Peterson's season-ending injury, a torn left Achilles tendon in Week 5. That's a devastating loss for the Niners - one of the worst things that could happen to the team, actually - and the absence of Peterson's leadership, star quality and playmaking ability all over the field will be severely missed. But that hardly is all that has gone wrong here through six weeks. The San Francisco defense has been plagued by significant injuries to some of its best players, which has made it impossible for this unit to develop consistency and any kind of momentum. Among the starters, Carter has missed five games, Smith has missed two and Rumph is out for the season after fracturing his right arm. Rumph played only in parts of two games before his season was finished. Engelberger and several backups along the line also have missed time because of injuries. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced the Niners to employ 18 different players so far this season along the defensive line. Second-year end Andrew Williams, expected to return from a broken leg at the end of September, never stepped foot on the field before the bye week. The transition of the line has left the Niners with a poor pass rush that has had a ripple effect throughout the defense. San Francisco's best pressure came from blitzing linebackers and the Niners had just three sacks - total - from defensive linemen in their first six weeks. That weak pass rush has exposed the secondary which, as a unit, has played poorly and lacked the ball-hawking mentality it displayed last year. The 49ers have zero interceptions from defensive backs and just two as a team through six weeks. They've only forced three turnovers, one of the NFL's lowest totals and a statistic that has hurt the entire team. Plummer has been beaten several times for big plays in key situations, and Jimmy Williams has been burned often as both a starter and the nickel back. Parrish hasn't lived up to his All-Pro form of the last two years and hasn't been making the plays he usually does. He has had a few missed tackles that have figured prominently in San Francisco's demise. Free safety Ronnie Heard also hasn't made many plays as opponents have been able to beat the Niners' secondary several times in situations that made a difference in close games. WHAT'S AHEAD: The Niners will have to play the rest of 2004 without Peterson and Rumph, two of the key players in their defensive attack this season. Those are huge losses which not only affect the team's front-line talent, but also its defensive depth. The good news is Smith and Carter are expected to return after the bye or shortly thereafter. The Niners will need everything they can get from those accomplished defenders, and the pass rush could get an added boost by the return of Andrew Williams in November. If Whiting can round into form, Engelberger continues his recent charge and Carter can come back at full strength, the Niners could have the improved pass rush they sorely need to improve as a defense. If the front seven can continue to hold up - and perhaps show some progress with healthy players returning - the defense has the potential to still be a solid unit and keep the 49ers in games. The key will be improved play from the secondary. The Niners certainly are expecting more out of Parrish and Plummer. If those two can step up like they are capable, and Spencer continues his progress at right corner, it could finally come together for the secondary over the final months, which is what the Niners need to keep it together and remain competitive on their injury-riddled defense.
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