Niners notebook

The 49ers will be searching for their identity Sunday when they take the field for their regular-season opener against the St. Louis Rams. In a division that features teams with strong passing attacks, the 49ers hope to forge a plan based on a power running game.

"That's what we'll pride ourselves in doing," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "The type of linemen we have are a little different than in years past but that's because what we've been able to get and so we'll play to that strength.

"We do want to create an attitude that we will run the ball and we can run the ball."

The 49ers owned the 30th-ranked rushing offense in the league last season, as featured back Kevan Barlow struggled behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. But early indications are that the offensive line will be improved this season.

The team hopes center Jeremy Newberry will be available for most of the season. He played in just one game last year due to knee and back problems. He is essentially playing without any cartilage in his right knee but will be on the field as long as he can withstand the pain.

The 49ers dumped right tackle Scott Gragg in the offseason and signed left tackle Jonas Jennings from the Buffalo Bills. The other three positions are manned by players in different spots. Kwame Harris shifts from left tackle to right tackle, Eric Heitmann moves from left guard to right guard, and Justin Smiley switches from right guard to left guard.

"It seems like we're light-years better than we were last year," Smiley said. "I was wondering, 'What is the difference between this year and last year?' Well, maybe everybody is back at the position they belong."

The 49ers even seem to have some depth with rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas ready to enter the lineup when injuries occur.

Barlow is the big key to the 49ers' running attack. He averaged just 3.4 yards a carry, gaining 822 yards and seven touchdowns on 244 carries. Barlow averaged 5.1 yards a rush while rolling up 1,024 yards in just four starts in 2003.

He said it is apparent that the 49ers will be much more stubborn when it comes to running the football this season.

"That's our mentality, everybody's mentality, run the ball and pass second," Barlow said. "We're going to establish. We'll run right and run left. We're not going to have 52 sacks this year. I'd rather run the ball every down before we have as many sacks as we did last year."

Barlow said he is confident that the changes made on the offensive line will produce a stronger offense - and overall team - this season.

"It's a makeover, and I'm excited about them," Barlow said. "When I go in the huddle and see those faces, I know I have guys in there that have each other's back and I know those guys are going to block."

THE LAST TIME NOLAN faced the Rams, his defense held Mike Martz's high-powered offense to just 121 total yards in the Baltimore Ravens' 33-22 victory. Obviously, Nolan had a lot better talent when he was defensive coordinator of the Ravens. But is there something about the 3-4 defense that gives the Rams problems?

"I wouldn't say that," Nolan said. "Every game is a new game and that occurred because of our players and what we were doing. It'll be a new game and a new situation."

IF THE 49ERS WANT to make it official and place receiver Jerry Rice on their reserve/retired list, they would have to sign him to their active roster before placing him on the list the next day, an NFL spokesman said.

That is not going to happen, Nolan said. Rice announced his retirement Monday as a member of the Denver Broncos, but said the next step is retiring as a member of the 49ers. That ceremonial gesture might not happen for a while.

"It's not like the NFL to make any exceptions for anyone, so I don't know that they would," Nolan said. "We haven't talked about petitioning anything at this point. We had this conversation (in the past) with Jerry's agent, as far as the timing of it and all of those things. We want to respect Jerry Rice and anything that might be his wishes, but at the same time we're in the process of putting a football team together and we don't want to do anything that compromises the team."

ROOKIE RECEIVER FRED AMEY earned his roster spot with a solid training camp and exhibition season. He opens the season as the No. 4 receiver. Amey's brother, Vince, also played for the Raiders in 1998. However, he was a defensive tackle.

"He's 6-3, 300 pounds," Fred Amey said. "I'm 5-10, 200 pounds. People always ask 'How's your brother so big and you're so small?' He ate a lot more than me, but that won't make you taller."

OFFENSIVE LINEMAN THOMAS HERRION died of heart disease last month after an exhibition game in Denver but likely sustained some heart damage in the days leading up to his Aug. 20 death, a Denver medical examiner said Tuesday.

Dr. Amy Martin, the deputy coroner and forensic pathologist who performed Herrion's autopsy and toxicology tests, said the 23-year-old player probably traveled to Denver to play football "days or maybe a week or so" after he sustained "organizing heart necrosis."

"It was not to the point where he would have had symptoms," Martin said. "He may not have had chest pain with any of this. Or he might have had chest pain but not recognized it for what it was. He might have experienced a twinge in his chest but as a football player, it might not have been viewed as much."

The official cause of death is ischemic heart disease, with significant blockage in his right coronary artery, Martin said.

"Usually people with ischemic heart disease die because of massive heart attack or a lack of oxygen caused the heart muscle to go into arrhythmia," Martin said. "More than likely, he had an arrhythmia."

Herrion collapsed in the locker room just minutes after the 49ers' 26-21 loss to the Denver Broncos in an exhibition game. Herrion had just taken part in a grueling 91-yard touchdown drive that took 14 plays - with two additional plays being wiped out by penalty. He was listed at 6-foot-3, and his weight at death was just less than 335 pounds, Martin said.

THE 49ERS ARE PLAYING one of the top offenses in the league in their opener Sunday with their new 3-4 scheme. But 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis said that's OK. He figures they might as well open the season with one of their stiffest challenges.

"We're ready for them," Davis said. "Right now, let's see what we can do against one of the top offenses in the league since coach Martz has been doing it."

MIKE RUMPH KNOWS ALL about the difficulties a cornerback faces against the Rams' passing attack. He was a cornerback his first three seasons in the league before making the switch this offseason to free safety.

"It's going to be a tough challenge for the corners because I've been out there," Rumph said. "I've already seen it as a corner, and I want to help them as much as possible. I think our corners will go out there and challenge them and I want to be there for them."

THE 49ERS HAVE TWO Yale alums on their team. "The odds of that must be a million to one," 49ers tight end Eric Johnson said.

Fullback Chris Hetherington and Johnson are two of the four former Yale players who have started in the NFL since 1990. Johnson and Hetherington were never teammates at Yale, but Johnson worked one summer in Connecticut at Sleeping Giant Golf Course, which is owned by Hetherington's father.

"He's a lot younger than me but I definitely watched him and followed him," Hetherington said.

WITH TIGHT END JOHNSON doubtful for Sunday's game with a foot injury, the club will start either veteran Steve Bush or rookie Billy Bajema. Bush missed most of the exhibition season due to a left shoulder injury. The 49ers waived tight end Aaron Walker, who started six games in his two seasons with the club, as they claimed tight end Trent Smith from the Ravens. Smith's first two seasons in the NFL have been wiped out due to injuries.

AMEY HAS BEATEN OUT Rashaun Woods for the No. 4 receiver job behind Arnaz Battle, Brandon Lloyd and Johnnie Morton. Amey will also return punts, if the 49ers decide not to use Battle in that role, Nolan said. Battle might be the team's top target in the passing game as the starting flanker. He also is the 49ers' top punt returner from last year, when he ranked sixth in the NFC with an 8.6 average.

DEFENSIVE BACK MIKE ADAMS, who is listed as a backup cornerback but also can play safety, will probably be on the field a lot this Sunday, as his task is to cover the slot receiver in three-WR formations. Adams beat out veteran Willie Middlebrooks for that role.

QUARTERBACK CODY PICKETT IS listed No. 4 on the depth chart but he has a chance to suit up and play. That's because Pickett started playing special teams midway through the exhibition season. He was used on almost all of the team's units. He does not know whether he will be asked to take part in special-teams plays in the season opener.

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 - points difference between the Rams and 49ers in the 111 games they have played, including playoffs. The Rams have outscored the 49ers 2,465 to 2,462.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They're not afraid to do what they're doing. I believe they're a touchdown-checkdown team. Most all of their routes have a touchdown pass with a checkdown. If the touchdown is there, he's going to throw it vertical. If it's not, they'll throw the checkdown. Most teams have that same philosophy in the red zone, but it's unique that somebody has that philosophy on all 100 yards of the field." - Nolan on the Rams' offensive philosophy.

Niners Digest Top Stories