Passing the test

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse for the 49ers' lagging passing attack, the NFL's top-ranked pass defense comes to town.

As their 1-9 record might attest, the Miami Dolphins don't have a whole lot going for them this season. But they do have their defense. In particular, they have a passing defense that has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL this season.

That's not good news for the struggling 49ers, who passed for just 125 yards last week during a 35-3 loss to Tampa Bay. That was the fewest passing yards the Niners have produced with Tim Rattay as their starting quarterback.

It came against a Tampa defense ranked second in the NFL in passing yards allowed. So, what's to expect this week against a unit that's one notch better?

"Obviously, we have to have a lot better showing this week," said Rattay, who has completed 62 percent of his passes this season but could only connect on 15 of 31 against the onslaught he faced in Tampa. "We have to learn from last week, put it behind us and move on. It's going to be a good challenge for us offensively. We're looking forward to going out there and meeting that challenge. They're a very good defense that has a lot of good players over there."

The 49ers better be careful what they wish for. While Sunday's matchup of 1-9 teams ostensibly gives San Francisco a prime opportunity to increase its win total at home, the Niners certainly will be challenged to move the ball through the air if they can't get anything going on the ground.

And, with the way they've been moving the ball on the ground lately … Well, let's just say, like Rattay says, the Niners are going to have to meet the challenge of Pro Bowl cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison and Co.

"They're two good corners, as good as you'll see in the league on one team," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "They'll come up and bump you. But if you watch them, they'll bump you when they are playing zone. They'll come up and play four across and bump. That's just how they play their defense. You get Surtain and Madison, that's what they do and they are very good at it. For us to be successful throwing the football, we've got to be able to get off the bump some. We're going to have to do some different things to try and get our guys in positions where they have a chance to succeed as far as playing against bump."

San Francisco's receivers haven't really been bumped much this season, mainly because opposing defenses haven't deemed that strategy necessary to slow down a San Francisco receiving corp that lacks big-play ability.

But the Niners will have to get off the bump this week.

They'll also have to give better protection to Rattay, who was pressured relentlessly by Tampa Bay's blitzing defense which, ultimately, overpowered San Francisco's protective wall.

The Dolphins won't blitz as much as the Bucs did, but they can bring the heat on the edges with defensive ends Jason Taylor (4.5 sacks) and David Bowens (three sacks). Tackles Jeff Zgonina and Dario Romero have combined for 5.5 sacks.

"They've got talent," Erickson said. "There's no question about it. Their linebackers are awfully good. Jason Taylor is as good a defensive end as you'll play against. Their safeties are playing very well. They've played pretty well all year defensively."

To beat that defense, it will have to start up front. The receivers won't have time to get open and Rattay won't have time to find them if the blocking holds up against a quality defense like it did last week, when Rattay was sacked a season-high five times and pressured into quick releases at least a dozen other times.

"We watched that film and were just gritting our teeth," said left guard Eric Heitmann, speaking for San Francisco's offensive line as a unit. "It was pretty frustrating. It makes you eager to get back on the field and do better.

"We got into situations (last week) where we didn't make plays we needed to make to keep the ball moving. If you look at these last four or five games, the 49ers' offense has been playing pretty well and the offensive line has been doing a much better job. So we just have to continue that and keep getting better and keep going after these next six games that we've got."

Beginning first with the league's No. 1 passing defense. The 49ers converted just one of 12 third-down situations last week. The Dolphins also are first in the league in stopping opponents on third down.

Think something has to give this week? It does if the Niners want to avert another offensive fiasco like they encountered in Tampa Bay.

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