Inside the 49ers

After placing tight end Eric Johnson on injured reserve Thursday, the 49ers roster was at 52 players and coach Mike Nolan said the team would not immediately fill the open roster slot. The Niners had not signed another player by Friday morning, though they likely will make some kind of roster move - perhaps elevating a player from their practice squad if not bringing in a free agent - before Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco's Monster Park.

"We'll leave the open spot right now for as long as we need while we take a look (at available players)," Nolan said. "So we'll be at a 52-man roster for a little bit until we know something."

The 49ers may look to fill Johnson's vacated spot with a defensive back. The Niners are short-handed in the secondary, where they currently have just seven players after releasing safety Dwaine Carpenter on Monday to make room for offensive tackle Anthony Clement.

"Certainly you're concerned, but right now I think we're OK there, as far as injury goes," Nolan said. "(Seven defensive backs is) where we are right now, but it could be eight (before Sunday's game). We'll see what we do as far as activation goes."

Nolan is not worried about depth in the secondary because of the versatility of some of the players that reside there, particularly second-year player Mike Adams, the team's regular nickel back.

Nolan said Adams could play both cornerback and free safety in a pinch. The only other secondary backups are rookie cornerback Derrick Johnson and second-year safety Keith Lewis.

"Mike Adams is more of a swing guy from safety to corner," Nolan said. "He gives us both. If we lose a corner, he can do that role. But we also have Derrick Johnson and Keith Lewis. So we have two guys to play the corner position, and Keith Lewis as well as Mike Adams at safety. We've kind of got two at both, or 1 1/2 at each, however you look at it."

Adams, who has the 49ers' only interception through two games, is confident he could play either position if called upon to do so.

"I know the defense pretty much," he said. "I know what I've got to do at all those positions. I can run with anybody, so it's no problem playing man-to-man at cornerback."

The 49ers also could elevate one of the two cornerbacks on their practice squad to fill the extra roster berth for Sunday's game.

STARTING CENTER JEREMY NEWBERRY was too sore to practice Thursday and missed the team's only padded session of the week.

Newberry, who's playing this season with a right knee that has virtually no cartilage, was scheduled to participate in full practice sessions only on Thursday each week to make it through the season. After missing the session, he was downgraded from probable to questionable on San Francisco's injury report.

"But only because he didn't practice," Nolan said. "When he doesn't practice, you have to do that."

Newberry said he will participate in walk-through drills as usual Friday and will be ready to start Sunday's game against the Cowboys.

ROOKIE RECEIVER MARCUS MAXWELL suffered a heel injury late in Wednesday's practice and was on crutches Thursday. The seventh-round draft pick, who is one of the best-looking prospects on San Francisco's practice squad, will be out 4 to 6 weeks with the injury.

Nolan said Maxwell was hurt "just going hard like he always does. He goes as hard as can be. He thinks the (recovery period) will be less than it could be."

Maxwell said he hurt his foot when he landed awkwardly, but expects to back practicing within a month.

THE 49ERS RANK AT or near the bottom in every offensive category through the first two games. They are the 31st-rated offense in yards gained - 31st rushing and 29th passing. Their 20 first downs are the lowest in the league, including just two rushing.

"The one glaring statistic we need to improve on is third-down production," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said. "The most important statistic running the ball is how many attempts. We need to be up in the 25s and 30, moving the sticks and getting rid of the three-and-outs."

The 49ers have converted on just four of 19 third-down attempts (21.1 percent), and they have produced one or fewer first downs on 16 of their 21 drives this season while somehow splitting games against the Rams and Eagles.

NOLAN AND MCCARTHY SAID the team will continue to rotate Fred Beasley and Chris Hetherington at fullback.

Beasley has not shared playing time with another fullback since becoming the starter in 1999. Beasley's contract expires at the end of the season, and it's doubtful he will return next year.

Beasley, a Pro Bowl selection two years ago, is looking as if he is being phased out. He's splitting time now with veterans Hetherington and Steve Bush, who also lines up as a tight end. Beasley did not touch the football in San Francisco's first two games - no carries, no receptions - and was on the bench most of the second half against the Eagles.

Hetherington was acquired in the days leading up to the first game.

"You have guys whose contracts run up and you want to get as many good guys on team so you cover your bases," Nolan said.

MCCARTHY SAID HE IS fortunate to have the kind of stable of running backs that allows him as much flexibility as he would ever need.

"I've never been on a team that had four halfbacks and two fullback who I felt confident with to go out and play a full game with any combination you want," McCarthy said. "We're taking advantage of it and playing to the individual guys' strengths."

NOLAN HAS A SPECIAL BOND with Dallas coach Bill Parcells, dating to their time together with the New York Jets in 2000. Parcells was the general manager and Nolan was the defensive coordinator.

"I don't know him as the head coach," Nolan said "I know him as the GM coming in saying, 'Hey, what's going on?' instead of, 'What the hell are you doing?'"

Nolan spoke with Parcells for advice on how to handle the situation when 49ers reserve offensive lineman Thomas Herrion died during training camp.

"It'll be a handshake and a hug and good luck," Nolan said of facing Parcells' team. "I have a lot of respect for Bill. One of these days he'll be in the Hall of Fame. I learned a lot from him. He was good to me. He's old school and a dinosaur in some respects. That works for some people. He's a very strong leader and is certainly set in his ways in some things but he's been successful so it's hard to argue with."

THE 49ERS-COWBOYS MATCHUP has been one of the better rivalries from teams that don't play in the same division. Nolan traced the seeds of the rivalry back to when his father, Dick, left the Cowboys' coaching staff to be head coach of the 49ers.

The teams have met in the NFC playoffs seven times, with six of those meetings coming in the conference championship game. The Cowboys won five of the playoff games, including four in the NFC title game.

"It's been a rivalry," Nolan said. "I think it originated when my father left Dallas and came to the 49ers (as head coach in 1968). Tom Landry was the coach down there. It was his student, my father, against his mentor in Tom Landry."

WHEN LEFT TACKLE JONAS Jennings went down after taking a hit to the throat against the Eagles, the 49ers had to turn to Patrick Estes to protect Rattay's blind side. Estes, it should be noted, was a backup tight end at the University of Virginia and a seventh-round draft pick of the 49ers.

The rookie had his hands full in the second half against the Eagles. Afterward, the 49ers decided they needed to get some veteran help on the offensive line to avoid putting Estes in that situation again.

The 49ers signed Clement, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Cardinals. He started 70 of his 82 games with the Cardinals. He is listed at 6-foot-8, 320 pounds, but appears to be carrying more weight. Clement went to training camp with the Broncos, who released him Sept. 3.

Nolan said Clement will be San Francisco's swing tackle - the top backup to Jennings and starting right tackle Kwame Harris - and could be ready to assume that role as soon as Sunday's game against the Cowboys. Clement practiced with the 49ers for the first time Wednesday.

"That's what we're hoping to get done this week," Nolan said. "We'll see where he fits. We could possibly de-activate (Estes). The sooner Clement can fit into that swing guy, the better we are."

THERE ARE NO PLANS to get quarterback Alex Smith into the lineup in the future, but the 49ers wanted to get him on the field more in the blowout loss to the Eagles. After the 49ers' first possession of the fourth quarter, Nolan informed Smith he was going into the game in place of starter Tim Rattay. But the Eagles then held the ball for 10 minutes, 26 seconds. Smith played just three snaps, throwing one incomplete pass.

KICKER JOE NEDNEY HAS been instrumental in helping the 49ers improve in the area of kickoffs. The 49ers rank third in the NFC, allowing opponents an average starting point of the 20.8-yard line after kickoffs.

LINEBACKER DEREK SMITH, THE 49ers' leading tackler each of his four seasons with the club, is again on top of that list. Smith leads the 49ers with 18 tackles through two games. Smith had 167 tackles last year and a franchise-record 189 in 2003. He has 638 tackles in 62 games since joining the team in 2001, and average of 10.3 per game.

SERIES HISTORY VS. COWBOYS: 31st meeting. The 49ers lead series 16-13-1, including victories in three of the last four meetings since 1997.

BY THE NUMBERS: Through the first two games, the opposition has held the football an average of 17 minutes, 20 seconds longer than the 49ers per game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're trying to rebuild and a lot of them are the same players who were here for 2-14. A lot of them were young a year ago and they're still young. That's the hand we've been dealt. There is a maturation process. I haven't been anywhere where young guys have matured and been right where you want them from the beginning" - Nolan on the expected ups-and-downs he will face this season.

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