Will 2005 49ers live or die by power of defense?

There's a tendency to believe it will all come down to defense for the 2005 49ers. San Francisco's best players reside on that side of the football, and an aggressive new 3-4 scheme's in place to highlight the strengths of those players. But there'll be no easing into the season with the new system, not with the "Greatest Show on Turf" coming to town Sunday. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis, however, says bring on the St. Louis Rams. "We want them right now," Davis said. "We're ready for them."

As ready as they'll ever be, at least, after one spring, one training camp and one exhibition season working in the new system.

As Davis quickly admits, this is not a defense that comes to teams quickly. It takes time and experience to master the intricacies of creating havoc and confusion with an extra linebacker while filling front gaps with only three defensive linemen. And that's putting it in the simplest of terms.

"The first year is the hardest, because everyone is learning the new defense," Davis said. "And the whole goal is to get everybody to play fast. At the same time, we're fighting through a learning curve, trying to get them to play fast and keep it simple."

On Sunday, in the season opener for both teams, simple goes against just about as complex as an offense can get.

The Rams finished sixth in NFL offense last year – fifth in passing – and that represented something of a down year compared to what St. Louis has produced since Mike Martz came to the organization as offensive coordinator in 1999 before taking over as head coach a year later.

So San Francisco's new 3-4 – the brainchild of Davis and the other defensive assistants assembled by head coach Mike Nolan – will get a stiff test early. Davis wouldn't have it any other way.

When asked Wednesday if he would rather have seen the Rams later on the schedule, after his unit had some time to mature, Davis quickly replied, "Nope."

"Right now, let's go out there and see what we can do against one of the top offenses in the league since coach Martz has been doing it," Davis continued. "I think the main thing – when you play an offense like the Rams – is, you communicate well and stay on the same page as a defense, because they're fast-paced, a lot of motion, a lot of movement, they try to get you on your heels and get you to slow down.

"So, we'll keep it simple, we'll call the things and run the things that we know, and they can come out and go as fast as they want, and we ought to be able to adjust all of that. And communicate is the biggest thing. They really challenge you in your communication."

The San Francisco defense will face a lot of challenges this season, a year after it was expected to be one of the rising units in the league. Instead, with a debilitating rash of injuries taking out some of its best players for all or parts of the season, the defense sagged and then flopped to 24th in the league while allowing 452 points – the most allowed by any NFL team in 2004 and just one point short of the franchise record.

That unit had to deal with a lot of short fields left to it by an inept offense, and there's no guarantee it will be any different this year. If the Niners are to get back to respectability this season – or climb above it – after finishing 2-14 last year, the play of the defense will have everything to do with it.

That defense didn't always look so good during the preseason.

The first unit was shaky at best – and occasionally manhandled – during its time on the field the first two weeks against Oakland and Denver. It looked better during extensive action on Aug. 26 against Tennessee, then seemed to be getting the hang of it before being pulled after one quarter in the Sept. 1 preseason finale against San Diego.

The 49ers allowed 404.5 yards a game during the preseason – including 158.5 on the ground – and both those figures are well over what the team averaged last year during the regular season. But Davis said the 49ers enter a new season Sunday just about where they want to be – and expect to be – with the new 3-4 system.

"We're right about on schedule," Davis said. "I'm going to keep saying learning curve, but there's a lot of techniques these guys have to master. I know they can tell them off to you on a piece of paper, but then you go ahead and apply them to a certain (situation), and then each week you get a new (offensive) scheme that comes at you, and over time you just have to settle in."

So, while the Niners take the time necessary to settle in, Davis – as he repeated several times – said, "you try to get them to play fast."

"We're going in the right direction," Davis said. "It's just that you'd always like to be going faster in that direction. But right now, the guys are working hard at it. The biggest challenge for us – and we're going to be where we want to be before this year's over – it's just how fast of a, I guess, of a pace we're on. And right now, Sunday will tell us where we're at.

"It's a great measuring stick for us to come out and say, ‘Well, this is one of the best (offenses) in the NFL, where are we right now?. We go out there, we go 11 men flying to the ball, play what we know, play fast, and see where we are."

Hopefully, it will be in a better place than last year. The 2005 season could be depending on it.

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