Inside the 49ers
With their personnel limitations, coach Dennis Erickson said he will not make any dramatic shakeups to the team's offensive unit for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. Instead, he has decided to scale back the playbook at a time when most teams' schemes are getting more and more complex. Quarterback Tim Rattay and running back Kevan Barlow, both of whom have been struggling, will start this week against the Rams. The only change to the starting lineup is at left tackle, where Kwame Harris will take over for Kyle Kosier, who would then start at right guard. However, Kosier might also rotate back to left tackle at some point in the game. "It's more what we can do offensively than it is about personnel," Erickson said. "We need to simplify our running game. That's probably the biggest thing. We have to try to take advantage of where we are with our front in our running game." The 49ers' running game, which was expected to be the strength of the team, has been a non-factor this season. The 49ers rank 30th in the league in average yards rushing per game. And Barlow has struggled with just 581 yards and a 3.2-yard average through the first 11 games. Barlow was benched early in the second half of the 49ers' 24-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday after gaining just 20 yards on nine carries. Backup Maurice Hicks was the 49ers' leading ground-gainer for the second consecutive game, rushing for 46 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Afterward, Barlow claimed his production has slipped, in part, because he no longer has the freedom to choose his holes as he has in the past. Barlow said the freelance aspect of his game has been taken away from him. "That's absurd," Erickson said. "I don't know what he meant by that." Said Barlow: "We're trained to run a certain way and do what they've told us to do -- our reads. I do my reads. This is the first year that I had to do that. My previous years, I never really had to do that. This year, I'm hitting my reads, making my reads. And if there's nothing there, there's nothing I can do about it." Erickson said he had a "good conversation" with Barlow on Monday, in which he told him he would not make a change at the starting position. "He's a sensitive guy," Erickson said. "He's a good guy. He's got to understand that he has to play better and other guys have to play better and that's the extent of it." Erickson said he believes Barlow is playing hard, but he does not break some tackles that he routinely busted through last season, when he rushed for 1,024 yards while getting just four starts in place of Garrison Hearst. Erickson pinpointed Barlow's struggles to "vision, planning and acceleration off breaks." Said Erickson: "If there is anything to say about Kevan, it's that when you make a decision, just go. He's got to do that, and that's the biggest thing." Perhaps Harris, who has struggled in pass protection this season, can add some pop to the team's running game. Harris is considered the team's best run-blocker, but he has played sparingly since returning to 100 percent health after sustaining knee and ankle sprains in a Week 2 loss at New Orleans. Barlow rushed for 190 yards in the first two games of the season when Harris was starting, but in the last nine games he has gained just 390 yards on 140 rushing attempts. The 49ers have not done as much pulling in their blocking scheme this season even though they touted going to a more athletic offensive line with the drafting of second-round pick Justin Smiley. Now, more than four months after reporting to training camp, the club has not showed any improvement on the field and it is regressing with its playbook, too. SERIES HISTORY: 111th meeting between the 49ers and Rams. The Rams lead the series 57-51-2 after winning nine of the last 11 meetings between the organizations. NOTES AND QUOTES --- Can the 49ers turn it around next season? Injured linebacker Julian Peterson seems to think anything is possible. "Look at San Diego," Peterson said. "Even their coaching staff probably believed they wouldn't win that many games. And they're No. 1 in their division right now, so anything is possible." --- QB Tim Rattay claims that all the hits he's taken this season behind the 49ers' porous offensive line have not taken a toll on him. "I don't mind getting hit," Rattay said this week without a trace of irony. "It's part of the game. I understand that. It really doesn't bother me. It's just something you have to deal with." He has already been sacked 33 times in his 7 1/2 games, including eight last Sunday against Miami. He was also knocked to the ground 14 times in addition to his sacks. --- When the 49ers play the Rams on Sunday, they'll get a first-hand look at a running back they briefly considered taking in the first round of the draft. Erickson lobbied for Steve Jackson, whom he coached at Oregon State, but the decision was made that they should trade back with the No. 16 pick. After all, the 49ers had already signed Barlow to a lucrative contract extension. "We decided although we were tempted by Steven Jackson that we were better off because we had other needs," 49ers GM Terry Donahue said. "In looking back, what we should've done, if people are wanting to look at hindsight, what we should've done was traded up and gotten (Ben) Roethlisberger. It's easy to second-guess us after the fact. (But) if Roethlisberger were available (at No. 16), we had clear discussions that we were going to take him." Roethlisberger was instead the Steelers' pick at No. 11 overall, while the 49ers traded back twice and ended up getting receiver Rashaun Woods, cornerback Shawntae Spencer and linebacker Richard Seigler in exchange for the No. 16 pick. --- Erickson said the coaching staff and players share the responsibility of placing importance on these games that have zero impact on the standings. "We can talk about it and we do talk about it," Erickson said. "It's a pride thing and it's a pride thing for me that our team plays hard all the time in the remaining five weeks. And then it's back on to them because they are the ones that have to do it." BY THE NUMBERS: 8.0 -- Quarterback Tim Rattay has been sacked or has thrown an interception once every 8.0 times he has dropped back to pass. QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is not a playoff team, but it's not a 1-10 team, either. There isn't anybody who works in this building that isn't to some degree responsible for our particular position of being 1-10, and that includes the general manager, the coaching staff, players and personnel department." -- 49ers GM Terry Donahue, assessing the blame for the team's failure this season. STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL Left tackle Kwame Harris, perhaps the 49ers' best run-blocker, will return to the starting lineup against the Rams. Kyle Kosier, who has started the last nine games at the position, will switch to right guard. But there still promises to be some shifting on the line throughout the course of the game. Coach Dennis Erickson said Kosier will likely also play left tackle, and rookie Justin Smiley could see action at right guard and left guard. "We're trying to find the best people that we can," Erickson said. "We feel Kwame is ready to go. He has an opportunity to start. That's how we started the season, basically, that lineup." The 49ers have yielded 42 sacks as a team in the first 11 games, which places them on pace to break the organization's sacks-allowed record of 53. Part of the challenge for Erickson and offensive coordinator Ted Tollner is to get Rattay on the move. Rattay is generally a pocket passer and does not have the agility to avoid the rush with his feet. "We've got to be able to move the pocket so they don't know where he is going to be all the time," Erickson said. "But as far as him having to scramble, that's not his deal. I really believe that we have to get ourselves more involved in the passing game. We've got to get things out quick and then try to get to the other stuff. Play action has been good and it was early, but we have to run the football with more success. If we're not running well, then all play action is five- and seven-step drops. So we have to look at our philosophy and try to get the football out quicker. As we run it better, we'll be able to do some of the play-action passes." --- RB Maurice Hicks is expected to enter Sunday's game against the Rams for the third offensive series. The coaching staff wants to get Hicks established in the game in the first half. And with the struggles of RB Kevan Barlow, the 49ers might be inclined to lean more on the "hot" back in the second half. Hicks has rushed for 128 yards on 28 carries this season. --- CB Ahmed Plummer will miss his sixth consecutive game with a bulging disk in his neck. He apparently sustained the condition Oct. 17 against the New York Jets, then had a week off for the bye. The 49ers do not expect to have Plummer back with the team this season. --- OG Justin Smiley, a rookie chosen in the second round, is beginning to see some action at right guard. He will not start at left guard this week against the Rams, ending a streak of nine consecutive starts. Many believe he is better suited to playing left guard. --TE Steve Bush, a seven-year veteran, was signed to take the roster spot of Kevin Ware, who was released this week. Bush is expected to be in uniform and see limited action Sunday against the Rams.
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