From practice squad to starting lineup?

Second-year cornerback Bruce Thornton played his first game as a 49er last week. On Sunday, he could be in San Francisco's starting lineup against the big, bad passing game of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

With his team ravaged by injuries at the cornerback position, coach Mike Nolan said there's a 50-50 chance that Thornton will make his first NFL start Sunday at left cornerback.

Rookie Derrick Johnson, who made his first NFL start at left corner last week against Arizona, suffered a thigh injury at the end of the first half and won't play this week against the Colts. Veteran Willie Middlebrooks, who replaced Johnson, suffered a groin injury later in that game and did not practice with the 49ers on Wednesday or Thursday.

Regular left cornerback Ahmed Plummer is out another 2 to 5 weeks after undergoing surgery Sept. 28 to remove bone fragments from his left ankle. Mike Rumph – moved back to cornerback Sept 25 after starting the first three games at free safety – would have been the top candidate to replace Plummer, but he tore a foot muscle in his first practice back at cornerback Sept. 27 and was placed on injured reserve.

The left Thornton taking snaps with the first-team defense during Thursday's practice. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder was signed to San Francisco's practice squad Sept. 14 after being released by the Dallas Cowboys. He was elevated to the team's 53-man roster last week and appeared in just his second NFL game against the Cardinals.

"We've got a lot of people hurt, so I'm trying to step up and help the team any way I can," said Thornton, a fourth-round draft pick by the Cowboys in 2004.

Thornton tore knee ligaments in his first NFL game with Dallas last year and missed the rest of the season. Now, Thornton's third NFL game could see him starting against one of the league's most lethal passing attacks.

"It's a little crazy," he said. "But being a competitor like I am, you wouldn't want it any other way but to play against the best. I'm looking forward to it."

If Thornton doesn't start, Nolan is considering moving free safety Mike Adams to cornerback and having Keith Lewis start at strong safety, with regular strong safety moving to free safety, where he has played in the past.

PETERSON LIKELY OUT AGAIN: Nolan said linebacker Julian Peterson, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, "might be doubtful" to play Sunday, though he remains listed as questionable on the team's injury report. The two-time Pro Bowler has yet to practice since being injured in the fourth quarter of San Francisco's 34-31 loss to Dallas on Sept. 24.

Brandon Moore and Saleem Rasheed would split time at Peterson's position if he is unable to play, Nolan said. Moore started in Peterson's place last week and finished second on the team with seven tackles. Rasheed had three tackles.

Moore also picked up Arizona quarterback Josh McCown's fumble on the game's first play from scrimmage and returned it to the Arizona 1-yard line before fumbling the football himself into the end zone, where teammate Derek Smith recovered it for a touchdown.

HOW MUCH WORSE CAN IT GET? Sure, there might be some tough times for Alex Smith when the No. 1 overall draft pick takes over for Tim Rattay at quarterback when the 49ers face the unbeaten Colts at San Francico's Monster Park.

But, really, how much worse can it get for the 49ers?

"We've had a lot of rough days over the past few weeks, wouldn't you say?" Nolan said. "Alex will be our quarterback, and it's about winning.

"I want to commit to every player we have, but it's about winning first. That's why we're doing this thing with Alex. He'll be the guy, and those rough days will happen. I recognize that, but I'm also pretty sure about what we have in Alex. You'd have to live in la-la land to think that there won't be some rough times, but I've got a lot of confidence in the guy in what he can do, both physically and mentally."

Smith gives the struggling 49ers something to build on for the future. After all, Rattay does not figure into the team's long-range plans. The 49ers have invested a lot of money in hopes that Smith can eventually help lead the 49ers back into prominence. The club signed him to a six-year, $49.5 million contract that includes $24 million in guaranteed money.

Nolan was impressed by what he saw from Smith even while he struggled with his play during the exhibition season. Nolan said he watched closely to see how Smith reacted when things did not go well. He also likes the way Rattay took the news of his demotion.

"I think Tim has handled everything to this point extremely well," Nolan said. "Even he could see the writing on the wall in the long term because we drafted Alex No. 1. I believe he'll be very positive. He said, 'I'm a professional and I understand. I'll do my very best to be prepared in case something happens to Alex.'

"I thought he handled this situation extremely well. I understand his disappointment. If he wasn't disappointed, you'd ask yourself, 'Why didn't I do this four weeks ago?'"

Rattay ranked 27th in the NFL with a passer rating of 70.3. He led the 49ers' to an opening-week victory over the Rams while compiling a 141.9 rating, ranking second in the league after one game. But it's been a steady decline since then.

Rattay was benched in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' 31-14 loss to the Cardinals in Mexico City. The 49ers scored two defensive touchdowns in the first quarter. In the 11 drives during which Rattay played, the 49ers' deepest penetration was the Arizona 45-yard line.

Smith has seen action in two regular-season games, completing six of 11 passing attempts for 34 yards.

SMITH SUPER RUNNING SCOUT OFFENSE: Before there was Marc Bulger and Donovan McNabb and Drew Bledsoe and Josh McCown, the 49ers' defense was torched by somebody else.

During his time running the scout team against the 49ers' first-team defense, Smith has had his way in practice throwing to such receivers as Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Maxwell and, even, fourth-string quarterback Cody Pickett.

"He takes all the defensive reps in practice, so he gets every bit as many repetitions in practice as the starting quarterback, but it's just running the opponent's offense," Nolan said of Smith's practice time. "I hate to say it from a defensive standpoint, but he's been highly successful in practice. That doesn't bode well for our defense some of the times. He's done an excellent job running someone else's attack. In finding the receiver and getting them the ball, he's done a great job."

FOLLOWING DRUCKENMILLER: Smith becomes the first 49ers rookie to start at quarterback since 1997 when injuries to Steve Young and Jeff Brohm forced first-round pick Jim Druckenmiller into action against the St. Louis Rams.

Druckenmiller completed 10 of 28 passes for 102 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in a 15-12 victory. He never started another game in the NFL.

IN NFC WEST, THERE'S STILL HOPE: The 49ers are statistically one of the worst teams in the league, having been outscored 132-76 while compiling a 1-3 record. But Nolan has not backed down from his preseason goal of the 49ers winning the NFC West.

The only reason there is still hope for the 49ers is because the NFC West is among the worst divisions in the NFL.

"Our target has not changed," Nolan said. "When you look at it from a statistical measure, we are only a game out of first. I believe it's going to be a tight division as it goes. As go forward, it's my goal to get better and better.

"Hopefully, it continues to be a tight division, which we believe it will be, and at that time we'll be in the thick. Our goal has not changed. We're only one game out of first, which is kind of crazy but it is reality."

BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers rank last in the league, averaging just 23:12 in time of possession per game, 13-and-a-half minutes fewer than their opposition.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I traded for Joe Montana" – Coach Mike Nolan, before informing the media of his decision to start Alex Smith at quarterback over Tim Rattay.

SERIES HISTORY VS. COLTS: 41st meeting. The Colts lead 22-18, but the 49ers have won seven of the last eight meetings dating to 1969. In the Colts' last trip to San Francisco, the 49ers rallied from way behind for a 34-31 victory in 1998, Peyton Manning's rookie season.

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