Back at it

The 49ers returned to the practice field Monday morning, and linebacker Derek Smith was there with them. That alone is very good news for a defense that also could have right end Andre Carter back in action by the time the Niners face the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

Smith, who suffered ligament damage in his right ankle during the Oct. 3 loss to St. Louis, has made a quick recovery and appears likely to be back in the lineup when the 49ers resume their season with a nationally-televised ESPN game at Soldier Field.

But where he'll be lining up still is to be decided, and won't be revealed until Sunday. It apparently will be at more positions than the middle linebacker slot where Smith played before he was injured.

With All-Pro Julian Peterson out for the season, the Niners will continue to rotate their versatile linebackers corps, with Smith sharing time in the middle with Jeff Ulbrich but also moving to Peterson's outside position on the left side.

That's nothing new for Smith, who was the team's runaway leader with 43 tackles before he was hurt in the first half against the Rams. Smith still led the team in that department before Ulbrich finally passed him in Week 6 before the Niners' bye.

Smith spent all of the spring and training camp and most of the preseason playing at Peterson's left outside slot before Peterson finally returned to the team after ending his holdout deep into August.

While the middle is undoubtedly Smith's strongest and most effective position, it makes sense that he will spend some time on the left side, since he spent so much time there earlier this year and has learned the position well. That will allow the Niners to have their three best healthy linebackers - Smith, Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn - on the field on most regular downs.

"He's so valuable inside," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said of Smith. "I hate to move him outside. That's why we spent the (bye) week deciding what we are going to do. I'll have to move a lot of people around, so he's going to have to play on the line of scrimmage some and it's really some of our plans, so I don't really want to get into it."

Brandon Moore, who had eight tackles against the Jets on Oct. 17 while making his first start in place of Peterson, will take Peterson's place in the regular four-man rotation at linebacker now that Smith is coming back. That means Moore will play when Smith or Ulbrich is in the middle and Ulbrich or Winborn is on the right side.

The Niners will attempt to move around those linebackers - some of their most dynamic playmakers on defense - to get the maximum out of their abilities. That means they sometimes will line up at an end-type edge position - similar to what Peterson did - although Erickson shot down any suggestions the Niners might move more to a 3-4 defense after the bye.

"Nah," Erickson said. "Just (with the) rotation, Brandon will play the 'Buck' (left outside) some. Derek will play a little bit. We're just going to kind of move them around. We're going to move (Smith) around so we can get him on the field. He won't necessarily be playing the 'Buck' all the time. We'll use some different things with those linebackers."

The Niners also are anxious to get Carter back in the mix. The fourth-year defensive end, who hasn't played since the Sept. 12 season opener because of back problems, had surgery to remove a cyst in his back three weeks ago. He didn't practice Monday, but he's expected to give it a go Wednesday when the team begins serious preparations for Chicago, and he could be ready to play in that game.

"He's still injured," Erickson said. "He may play this week. There is a chance. We'll wait and play it day-by-day and see what happens on Wednesday. He seems to be getting a lot closer."

The Niners are anxious to get Carter back to provide a jolt to their lagging pass rush. The team planned to use Carter this season in many of the same ways it uses Peterson, so Carter's return also will help fill the substantial void left by Peterson the remainder of the season.

The Niners still are planning on Andrew Williams - remember him? - being able to help in that area the rest of the way, too. But it might not be for another month. Williams - the team's third-round draft pick in 2003 who broke his left fibula early in training camp - has started running again with physical development coordinator Jerry Attaway. His recovery - which has taken much longer than expected - could be nearing its end.

"He's getting better," Erickson said. "He's getting into condition and he's continuing to improve. Now, we just have to see what kind of condition he's in. The prognosis is probably another three or four weeks."

Otherwise, the Niners - who had several players hurting entering the bye week, particularly on defense - are rounding into relatively good health. Linebacker Saleem Rasheed, who had arthroscopic knee surgery a week ago, "is very doubtful for (Sunday's) game," Erickson said. But starting left cornerback Ahmed Plummer, who missed practice Monday with lingering soreness is neck, should be able to practice Wednesday and play against the Bears.


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