New look for floundering offense

No Tim Rattay at quarterback this week for the 49ers. No Kevan Barlow at tailback, either. With the way they've been playing lately, is this a good or bad thing for the San Francisco offense?

The football lords know it can't get much worse for the 49ers than it was last week, when the San Francisco offense produced a season-low 160 yards and just nine first downs against a reeling St. Louis defense that entered the game ranked 28th in the NFL.

Perhaps the injuries sustained by Rattay and Barlow in that game had something to do with the poor production. Rattay tore the plantar fascia in his right foot on the third play of the game. Barlow was left with a concussion after absorbing a huge hit early in the third quarter.

Both continued to play through their injuries. Perhaps they shouldn't have.

Rattay finished with a season-low 121 yards passing, completing fewer than half his passes for the second time this season. He has thrown for just 449 yards and no touchdowns in San Francisco's past three games.

Barlow, though he ran with the sort of aggressiveness and purpose he hadn't shown much of in the previous two months, was limited to 48 yards rushing on 19 carries (a 2.5 average) by a defense ranked 31st in the league in rushing defense and 32nd – dead last – in average yards allowed per rush.

It was the fourth consecutive game Barlow was held to fewer than 2.5 yards per carry. In the past four games, he has gained just 145 yards on 63 carries, a 2.3 average.

Perhaps Rattay and Barlow need a little time on the bench to sort things out and gain some perspective on their enduring slumps. Both will get that this week, but not for those reasons.

Their injuries will keep them out, coach Dennis Erickson said Wednesday, forcing Rattay to miss his fourth start of the season and Barlow to miss his first.

"Tim, with the injury, is a couple of weeks away," Erickson said. "The report that we got is that he can't put weight on it for two weeks. We'll re-evaluate next week. Kevan's concussion is pretty bad. He is not cleared to play. We'll see how it goes after the week."

Barlow had recurring headaches Wednesday and has been examined by a neurologist. "We wouldn't keep him out if it wasn't pretty serious," Erickson said.

And so, with the top two yardage producers on their floundering offense out, the 49ers turn over the duties of the two key positions to … Ken Dorsey and Maurice Hicks.

Dorsey will make his fourth start of the season and Hicks will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, the team that handed San Francisco its only victory after leading by 16 points with less than five minutes to play on Oct. 10. The 49ers rallied from a 28-12 deficit with 4:46 to play in regulation to win 31-28 in overtime.

Rattay threw for 417 yards in that game to pace the 49ers to a season-high 448 yards of offense. But it has been downhill for that offense since then. The 49ers have been held below 225 yards four times in the past six games since returning from their bye week. They've been held to 14 points or below four times in the past seven games and to six points or below twice in the past three weeks.

While the team would like to see Rattay and Barlow break out of their slumps by playing through them the rest of the season, the move to Dorsey and Hicks will at least provide some new dimensions and give the offense a new look this week.

As bad as it has been going for the Niners, ostensibly that can't hurt.

But can it make things any better? The 49ers are anxious to see. Dorsey was terrible in his past two starts, playing so poorly that some in the organization have lost confidence that he can be a factor at the position in the future. But Erickson says now that Dorsey was injured then, and he is looking for a different kind of performance this week against an Arizona defense that has had its moments this season.

As far as Hicks goes, everybody is anxious to see what he can do with extended carries. He doesn't have the size to be an every-down back, but he hits holes quickly, has displayed toughness and has averaged 5.1 yards or better in three of his four games as Barlow's backup. His 144 yards on 31 carries since being signed to the active roster from the practice squad in November has been one of the few bright spots for the offense during the past month.

"They've both played," Erickson said of his new starting quarterback and tailback. "It's not like they haven't played in a game. (Dorsey)'s been able to sit back and look at things and I believe he'll be better than he was. Maurice is going to have to carry the load. He hasn't done that. So that's going to be something new." And, as everybody knows, the San Francisco offense desperately needs some of that wherever the Niners can find it.

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