Niners starting over in secondary?

What's the worst thing that could happen to a 49ers secondary that has been ravaged by opponents for an average of 369 yards passing per game through the first three weeks of the season? Well, it could lose two starters in the space of three days. With Mike Rumph out for the season and Ahmed Plummer out until at least late October, San Francisco's defensive backfield is scrambling to pick up the pieces with a bunch of spare parts.

Can the 49ers possibly manage to hold it together without two of their most experienced veteran defensive backs? They will have to, because there is no pity in the NFL for San Francisco's problems, and also no letup with the Arizona Cardinals and their big and talented receivers waiting for the Niners' restructured secondary Sunday in Mexico City.

As nickel-back-turned-starting-free-safety Mike Adams said Thursday, "It's not like we have time to develop. We have to play right now and get it going. One injury happens, now another guy steps in. We all have to step up our game."

Just like last year – when the 49ers ultimately had to call up Adams and Rayshun Reed from the practice squad to play extended minutes after season-ending injuries to Rumph and Plummer – San Francisco is scrambling to make do in the secondary with something less than front-line players.

After all, Derrick Johnson is a sixth-round draft pick who was ticketed for backup duty during his rookie season. Now his learning curve has been accelerated exponentially.

And, after all, Willie Middlebrooks is a veteran cornerback the 49ers didn't even deem worthy of a place on their original 53-man roster, releasing him at the final roster cutdown at the beginning of this month.

But now Middlebrooks is back, and Johnson is being pushed into the starting lineup, where he worked with the first-unit defense during team drills Thursday.

Both figure to play key roles in the secondary this week, and perhaps weeks beyond. The 49ers currently have only six healthy defensive backs on their 53-man roster, and coach Mike Nolan said there won't be any reinforcements coming this week, at least from outside the organization.

One of the two cornerbacks on the team's practice squad – youngsters Bruce Thornton and B.J. Tucker – might be elevated to fill out the roster for Sunday's game, but only as emergency roster insurance that can't be expected to provide any immediate help.

That means the consequential duties at left cornerback and nickel back will be handled primarily – and perhaps totally – by Johnson and Middlebrooks.

"Both those guys are doing a good job," Nolan said. "It looks like Derrick Johnson may (start). Both guys will play. We're thin there."

No kidding. But too thin to win? The Niners don't think so. Johnson, in fact, is eager to face the new challenge.

Impressive during the preseason – when he tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions to win a roster spot – Johnson has seen sporadic duty so far in nickel and dime coverage packages. But Sunday promises to offer a whole new experience altogether, and the low-key rookie says he's ready.

He'll have to be – at two different positions.

"This is my test to see if I can play here," Johnson said. "And I believe I can. I know both spots and I'll be ready. The transition back and forth throughout the game won't be a problem. I just have to prepare a lot more than others because I'm obviously doing two positions."

The recent change in position represents a change in responsibility for Adams, who played free safety throughout the preseason before winning the nickel back job entering the regular season.

When this week started, Adams was the newcomer to the starting lineup, the player who was going to need the support of others as he slides into his new role. Four days later, it's almost as though Adams must take on the increased role of secondary veteran and lend support to other newcomers.

"I have to be the captain out there now," Adams said. "I have to take control, tell the corner what to do, get everybody lined up right. Being at the nickel spot, I didn't have to be that vocal. Now it's switched roles. I'm the safety and now I have to tell them what to do. And that's what I'm going to do."

The Niners are solid at right cornerback with the ever-improving Shawntae Spencer, leaving veteran strong safety Tony Parrish to hold it all together with the new secondary components the 49ers are plugging into the unit this week.

Parrish, as he has in the past, probably will be playing more safety coverage now than in previous games when he often crowded the line to help in run support. That certainly will be a good thing for the 49ers, since the middle of the field was so often exposed this month as the strong passing games of St. Louis, Philadelphia and Dallas took advantage of Rumph's inexperience at deep safety.

"Nothing's really changed for me," Parrish said, shrugging off the secondary shakeup. "I swap from free to strong and strong to free and moving around like that. My role doesn't really change. I just keep doing the same thing I've always done. And it's not like Mike doesn't have any experience at safety. He's been at safety and at corner. Mike has great range in the middle of the field and he does bring a whole new skill set. So it's not like we're starting over."

At least, the 49ers hope not. Then again, maybe starting over isn't such a bad idea with this secondary.

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