Niner of the Week

Ever try to play football and make tackles with a torn biceps in your arm? Jeff Ulbrich did that for 2½ quarters Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, and still managed to excel as one of the defensive stars of the game. For his gritty performance in the 49ers' 28-3 loss, Ulbrich is the choice for SFI's NOTW honors.

Sunday standout: Ulbrich set the tone early that this wasn't going to be a walk in the park for the high-powered Indianapolis offense by making five tackles in the first quarter on his way to recording a game-high 10 tackles. Seven of Ulbrich's stops prevented Indianapolis first downs, and he also displayed his improved range by making two tackles downfield after completed passes. Ulbrich made the game's biggest defensive play to that point when he knocked the ball out of running back Edgerrin James' hands as James lunged for the goal line, forcing a fumble that the 49ers recovered in the end zone for a touchback. That left the Colts with zero points to show for a 95-yard drive and kept the Niners in the game behind just 7-0. Ulbrich had four tackles on that drive. Then, the next time Indianapolis had the football, Ulbrich became engaged with an offensive lineman while tackling James after a four-yard gain on second down. On the play, which came with nine minutes still remaining in the second quarter, Ulbrich suffered a complete rupture of the biceps tendon in his left arm. He left the game momentarily, got his armed wrapped, and then came back in to play the rest of the game. He was out there to the bitter end, getting his final tackle on the next-to-last play before Indianapolis kneeled down to run out the clock. It was Ulbrich's third game of double-digit tackles this season.

Season to date: Ulbrich leads the 49ers and ranks ninth in the NFL with 41 tackles. He's sixth in the NFL with 32 unassisted tackles. This is his third time leading the team in tackles this season. He also had a team-high 11 tackles in the Sept. 18 loss at Philadelphia. Smith and fellow inside linebacker Derek Smith each had 11 tackles in the loss to Arizona in Mexico City. Ulbrich also has been making more plays in pass coverage this year in the 3-4 defense, and he had two passes defensed in the first four games, already the third-highest total for a season in his six-year career.

Need to note: Ulbrich is coming off the two best seasons of his career after recording 138 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 15 starts in 2003 and a career-high 167 tackles last year, when he tied Smith for the team lead. Ulbrich, the team's third-round draft choice in 2000, is on pace to be the team's leading tackler by himself this season with 131.

Looking ahead: Sadly, Ulbrich probably won't get the opportunity to add another tackle to his team-leading total in 2005. His torn biceps needs immediate surgical care, though he could continue to play without surgery at the risk of losing 50 percent of the strength in his left arm for the rest of his life, according to doctors. Ulbrich must make a decision in the next few days whether to have season-ending surgery or play and take the risk. Ulbrich has been very durable over the past four seasons despite battling the usual nagging dings that affect most NFL linebackers. He's missed five games to injuries during that span, but started 61 of the team's other 64 games.

Ulbrich says: "I really feel like we're growing as a team, as a defense, and I want to be a part of it. I love this game. We're watching (game) film, and it was just irritating to me, the fact I could see progress not only in the team but myself, and I want to keep going. We're not winning and it may not seem from the outside that we're making progress, but we are. That's what makes it the most frustrating. If I have to, I'll get the surgery, if that's best move. But right now, I just haven't made my mind up."

Coach Mike Nolan says: "Jeff's a real warrior and Jeff is the kind of guy that will go out and play on one leg if he can. We got Jeff for a long time and he'll be a 49er for a long time. Jeff Ulbrich doesn't want to give up his season to an injury, and he's got a significant injury, because he feels something special is going to happen. I know what Jeff wants to do in the worst way, but you have to be smart."

ALSO CONSIDERED: RB Kevan Barlow (18 carries for 99 yards rushing and three receptions for 29 yards while leading the team in both rushing and receiving and finishing with 128 of team's 177 offensive yards); DB Mike Adams (nine tackles, one pass defensed, fumble recovery in end zone).

PREVIOUS NOTW LIST: Week 1: DE Bryant Young. Week 2: P Andy Lee. Week 3: WR Brandon Lloyd. Week 4: DE Bryant Young.


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