Changing defenses

The biggest change on the 49ers' defense this offseason came shortly after coach Mike Nolan was hired. He brought aboard defensive coordinator Billy Davis to implement the 3-4 scheme. The change meant two of the team's top players will be working at new positions in 2005. Defensive end Andre Carter is now an outside linebacker while defensive tackle Bryant Young will be moving to defensive end in his 12th NFL season. And those aren't the only players trading places in the revamped look.

The 49ers were decimated by injuries last season, as nine defensive starters missed a total of 54 games. The defense ranked 24th in the league and allowed a league-high 452 points, one point shy of the franchise record.

The centerpiece of the retooled defense is outside linebacker Julian Peterson, returning from a torn Achilles' tendon. Peterson will be asked to apply more pressure on the quarterback while also using his coverage skills.

"The offense is really on their heels trying to figure out not only who's your fourth rusher, but who your fifth might possibly be," Davis said of the 3-4 scheme.

Personnel-wise, the 49ers did not make many changes. Nolan endorsed the signing of defensive lineman Marques Douglas, who played a key role under Nolan with the Ravens. Douglas is the only player on the 49ers' line that has significant NFL experience in a 3-4 scheme. He can play end in the base defense and move inside on nickel downs.

One of the big changes on defense is in the secondary, where cornerback Mike Rumph has agreed to switch to free safety. Rumph, who missed 14 games last season due to a broken right forearm, made the position change during the 49ers' organized team activities in June.

The 49ers' coaches have liked what they've seen from cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer, giving them the freedom to move Rumph to safety. Rumph is expected to take the place of Ronnie Heard, who struggled at free safety last season and was not re-signed as a free agent.

One of the big priorities for the 49ers is finding a player who can play nose tackle in their base defense. Anthony Adams is currently No. 1 on the depth chart, but he will undoubtedly receive stiff competition from Isaac Sopoaga, who spent his entire rookie season in injured reserve, and rookie Ronnie Fields, a fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi State.

Sixth- and seventh-round draft picks Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly will compete against second-year player Rayshun Reed for the all-important role as the team's third cornerback.

The key to the new system – and any 3-4 system – is the play of the linebackers, which was San Francisco's strength last year and figures to be again this season. Peterson, Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn are all productive players who could excel in the new scheme while all being on the field at the same time.

But the Niners also have talented depth at the position beyond those four projected starters, including Carter, who could return to his pass-rushing prowess of 2002 (when he had 12.5 sacks) in his new role on the edge.

Carter, who's considered too small to play end in the new defense, is one player who was thought to be on the outside looking in with the team's switch to the 3-4.

But Nolan said he definitely sees Carter with a role in the new scheme. Carter has the flexibility to play outside linebacker with his hand on the ground or in a two-point stance. However, it's not quite clear exactly what Carter's role will be. He is likely to complete against Winborn for a starting role on the right side, though Nolan has said both players can be on the field at the same time.

Winborn started 10 games last season after Peterson was injured. He ranked third on the team, behind Smith and Ulbrich, with 104 tackles. He was second behind John Engelberger (six) with 4.5 sacks.

NINERS NOTEBOOK

WORLD TRAVELER TONY PARRISH, another key figure in the team's new defensive scheme as the starting strong safety, is eager about representing the organization July 14 and 15 in Mexico City during a promotional tour for the Oct. 2 regular-season game against the Cardinals.

The 49ers and Cardinals will play in 100,000-seat Azteca Stadium, the first time an NFL regular-season game has ever been played outside the United States.

"It's exciting to be a part of the history of this event," Parrish said. "As a player, you have all the excitement that will go along with that. Plus, we also have to deal with the altitude."

Parrish volunteered to take part in the promotional event because he loves to travel during his offseason. He has spent a lot of time the last two summers in Brazil, where he has taken up samba dancing. Parrish said he can speak "a little bit of Spanish."

Parrish studied the samba at a renowned dance school in Rio de Janeiro and danced in the city's main Carnival parade. He was dressed as a court jester. He said people in Brazil thought he was a fighter, as he kept a low profile.

Everybody will know Parrish's identity in Mexico. He is there to sell the game of football, where futbol is king.

"It's just a great game to promote," Parrish said. "And it's an international game. Football is American football, but with the emergence of NFL Europe and with international players getting more looks on NFL practice squads, there's a chance to see the game's appeal grow. This is a great chance to be an ambassador for the sport."

Team owner John York will also attend the media functions in Mexico City. Nolan said he expects to travel to Mexico City at some point in the next month to get a feel for the team's accommodations so he knows what to expect for the team's trip in October.

PARRISH HAS PLAYED SEVEN seasons in the NFL, and he will be playing under his fifth head coach. He spent the first four seasons of his career with the Chicago Bears.

"I'm definitely confident," he said. "I've seen some turnover and I like what's going on here. I think the structure itself is what I like best. The (new) coaching staff has done a great job of laying the foundation and letting players know what's expected of them and giving everyone a direction. (Defensive coordinator) Billy Davis has done a good job of teaching. I think we're ahead of where we were as far as learning the system."

Parrish said he does not see much of a difference between his role in the past, while the 49ers played a 4-3 defense, to now with the team making the transition to a 3-4. Since Week 11 of the 2001 season, Parrish is tied with Ravens' safety Ed Reed with a league-high 21 interceptions.

"I believe my role is the same as it's been since been here," he said. "The bottom line is, 'Go get the ball.'"

ALTHOUGH THE 49ERS SOLD out every game since a 1981 regular-season game against the Cowboys, they are starting to see that their support is dwindling.

Last week, the 49ers announced a $2 million marketing campaign that emphasizes the team's tradition while also encouraging fans to show faith for the future.

"We are proud of our faithful and loyal fans and this campaign will help us celebrate their long-standing support of the 49ers," said David Pearl, the team's vice president of sales and marketing. "Brand campaigns are at the center of every successful business: sports and entertainment companies are no different. We are going to be aggressive in promoting who we are."

The 49ers plan to unleash a barrage of radio commercials and newspaper advertisements as the team gets set to open training camp later this month. The club is also looking to build support for a new stadium, which will likely require season-ticket holders to pay some sort of seat license as well as increased ticket prices.

THE 49ERS ARE SET to report to training camp later this month, so Nolan gave his coaching staff some time off before the grind begins. Most of the players have also been staying away from the team's practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif.

THE 49ERS REMAIN CONFIDENT that they will have No. 1 overall selection Alex Smith signed for the opening of training camp on July 28. Of course, the 49ers would love for Smith to assert himself as the team's top quarterback during the exhibition season, and that is only going to happen if Smith reports to camp on time.

The 49ers have already signed three of their 11 draft picks, but Smith is the biggie. Most of the team's nearly $6.2 rookie salary pool will be devoted to Smith's contract. He will receive the largest amount of guaranteed money - expected to be more than $20 million - the organization has ever awarded.

NINERS' VICE PRESIDENT OF player personnel Scot McCloughan was scheduled to attend the workout July 8 for USC defensive tackle Manuel Wright, who is the top prospect entered in the July 14 supplemental draft. Nolan said last month that the 49ers did not plan to select anyone in the supplemental draft, but that he and McCloughan would continue to discuss the possibility leading up to the draft.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Guys are excited. They definitely acknowledge and like the effort Dr. York has put into trying to restructure and reestablish the organization" - Safety Tony Parrish on the optimism surrounding the offseason moves enacted by the club's owner.


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