Things that must change

If the worst part of the 2004 season really is behind the 49ers now after their 1-5 start, and there truly are better days ahead for the team this season, here are 10 things that must change the rest of the way during San Francisco's final 10 games:

1. A better Barlow: Simply put, Kevan Barlow has to start performing a lot more like the tailback that finished last season than the one that started this season. If Barlow has more games of struggling to average 3.0 yards per carry while failing to put the Niners in short-yardage situations on second and third down, San Francisco will have a lot more unbalanced offensive games like it had during the first six weeks, and that means many more games of too many passes as a necessary means of moving the football.

2. Pump up that pass rush: The Niners have received a total of three - count 'em - sacks in six games from their defensive linemen. Half of that total has come from end John Engelberger, meaning there a lot of defensive ends and defensive tackles on this team who need to step up the rest of the way for the Niners to get better.

3. Impact on the edge: Directly related to the above item, the Niners need Andre Carter and Andrew Williams to return from injuries that have kept them out all but one game this season and give the team the lift it sorely needs on the edge. They are arguably the team's two best speed rushers, and the pressure they can bring - sooner rather than later, hopefully, in the case of both - can be a big boon to the entire defense.

4. O-line cohesiveness: The Niners mixed and matched and basically pasted their offensive line together through the first six weeks due to the losses of center Jeremy Newberry and tackle Kwame Harris. The situation should be a little more settled now as the team eases Harris back in at left tackle, allowing Kyle Kosier to move back to right guard. The line has to start developing some consistent continuity and cohesiveness to better protect quarterback Tim Rattay and open holes in the running game for Barlow. Those things work hand in hand - the more of a rushing threat provided by Barlow, the more time Rattay will have in the pocket.

5. Playmaker Parrish: Since when has anybody seen strong safety Tony Parrish go six games in a 49ers uniform without making any significant impact as a playmaker? The answer, of course, is never. The NFL leader in interceptions last year, Parrish usually made a few big plays every game during his first two seasons in San Francisco. That hasn't been the case this year, and the Niners need his ballhawking mentality and propensity for making the pivotal play to return the rest of the way.

6. Playmaker Plummer: See above. The Niners need left cornerback Ahmed Plummer to start making more plays the rest of the way, too. Plummer isn't in a position in San Francisco's defensive scheme to make plays like the versatile Parrish, but since opponents seem willing to test him so often, he needs to produce more often than not when other teams come after him, which they certainly will continue to do until he makes them pay.

7. Blitz those backers: Erickson said the Niners "screwed around over this past week with some things." Let's hope that meant some new ways to bring their linebackers on the blitz now that Derek Smith is returning to the lineup. The Niners weren't able to blitz as much as they wanted during the first six weeks because they fell behind so often - and, sometimes, by so much - in games. They need to bring the heat more often the rest of the way to make things happen on defense.

8. Hold onto the damn ball: It might sound a little trite by now, but the Niners aren't going to win many games in 2004 if they continue to turn over the football at their current rate of 2.5 giveaways a game the rest of the season. That average needs to be less than one a game - or even better - the rest of the way.

9. Brandon Lloyd, go-to receiver: The Niners have received solid but unspectacular play from their wideouts so far in their receiver-by-committee approach. But Lloyd, after returning from a two-game absence due to a groin injury, began showing some signs during the two weeks before the bye that he's ready to be the No. 1 guy that stands out above the rest. The Niners need that the rest of the way, as was evidenced during their lone win against Arizona when they went to Lloyd without hesitation when the game was on the line, and he produced. Just think what kind of openings tight end Eric Johnson will find over the middle if Lloyd truly steps up as a go-to wideout.

10. More production from top rookies: Shawntae Spencer, you've been more than anybody could have asked for. But the Niners need more of their top rookies to step up as the season progresses like Spencer - the second of their two second-round picks - who is starting at right cornerback and becoming one of the more dependable defensive backs on the entire team. We're talking specifically here about first-round pick Rashaun Woods, who needs to make his presence felt more at receiver, and first second-rounder Justin Smiley, who has started four games at right guard but needs to start becoming more of a consistent force in the trenches and make better use of his athleticism. We've given up hope that third-round receiver Derrick Hamilton will contribute this year, but with Peterson gone, it would be nice to see fourth-rounder Richard Seigler make a bid for some playing time at linebacker down the stretch. There's some room there for him to get a chance to make plays, particularly if Saleem Rasheed continues his slow injury fade into oblivion.


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