Desperate times at cornerback

Pick a cornerback - any cornerback. That's what the 49ers might be forced to do Sunday against the Carolina Panthers after recent injuries to Shawntae Spencer and Jimmy Williams left the team practicing Thursday without its top four players at the position.

The injury setbacks just keep coming for the Niners, who may have to move around players in their struggling secondary just to field a legitimate unit against the Panthers.

And even that certainly is no sure thing.

Coach Dennis Erickson is hopeful that San Francisco's current starting cornerbacks – Spencer and Williams – can recover in time to play Sunday. But there was a trace of doubt in his voice.

"I believe both of them will be OK, but I don't know that for sure," Erickson said. "We'll know more (Friday)."

Spencer sprained his left ankle during practice Wednesday when he stepped on practice-squad receiver P.J. Fleck's foot during team drills. The second-round draft pick has started five games in place of regular right cornerback Mike Rumph, who broke his right arm in October and will miss the remainder of the season. Spencer's development as a cover corner has been one of the few bright spots in a pass defense that has allowed 14 touchdown passes in the team's first eight games.

Williams has a hairline fracture in his small toe. He started the past two weeks in place of regular left cornerback Ahmed Plummer, who has a bulging disk in his neck that could keep him out several more weeks – and possibly the rest of the season.

Williams practiced Wednesday but had complications with the toe injury he suffered last week when someone stepped on his foot in practice. The team checked out the injury then but did not identify the fracture. Williams started and played with the injury during last week's 42-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when he was beaten for a 25-yard touchdown pass by Koren Robinson – one of several scoring passes Williams has allowed this season.

Williams then had an X-ray on Wednesday that revealed the fracture. Team trainers have fitted Williams with a toe splint.

"You don't put a lot of weight on it, but obviously it hurts," Erickson said. "They didn't realize it was broken. They looked at it last week and they didn't see it. It's painful as heck for him. It was painful in the (Seattle) game and, obviously, yesterday it was really painful for him. So they got an X-ray and found out there was a fracture in there. They're just trying to make it more comfortable, so I'd be surprised if he didn't play on Sunday. But I've been surprised before."

Spencer and Williams both were listed as questionable on the team's injury report. Williams was not on that list Wednesday. Plummer is listed as out for the third consecutive week, though he said he hopes to be back in the lineup by the end of this month.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say San Francisco's secondary was vulnerable this season even with its front-line corners in action. Without them, the 49ers have been scrambling for solutions. Without Spencer and Williams on Wednesday, the situation has pretty much reached desperation.

The 49ers moved backup safety Dwaine Carpenter to cornerback during Thursday's practice, and he likely would be the first option to start if either Spencer or Williams can't play Sunday. Carpenter started one game at cornerback for the 49ers last season.

Joselio Hanson, San Francisco's nickel cornerback the past two weeks after Plummer went down, is the team's next option at the position. He has made a few plays in coverage the past two weeks, but was burned for a 39-yard touchdown pass by Seattle's Darrell Jackson last week.

Carpenter and Hanson were joined at cornerback during team drills Thursday by rookies Rayshun Reed and Mike Adams. Reed played in his first NFL games the past two weeks after starting the season on San Francisco's practice squad. Adams has spent the entire season on the practice squad.

If nothing else, both Reed and Adams are gritty.

"Everybody knows this game is one play away," Reed said. "If it calls for me to get on the field, that's what I've been coached to do. I approach it like I'm going to play, and I'm expected to perform up to par."

But it seems to be asking too much if the Niners must resort to using those inexperienced rookies in secondary coverage packages against a Carolina passing game that is the strength of the Panthers' offense.

But that's the latest stark reality facing a team that has been ravaged by injuries and on-field breakdowns throughout the year. If you thought it was bad that the Niners were starting backups at cornerback the past two weeks, it could be even worse this week if the team has to rely on the backups to those backups.

"That's really where we're at," Erickson said. "Rayshun and (Adams) have both been around all year, so it's not like they have to learn a lot of it as far as terminology and all that stuff. We'll see what happens."

If those youngsters are forced to play, we pretty much know what will happen already. And, more likely than not, it isn't good.

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