No hope for Niners?

If the 49ers are to change their fortunes after the bye week, it would represent one of the more extreme turnarounds in NFL history.

After all, the Niners own the league's worst defense through the first five games, and are next to last in offense.

The 49ers rank last in the league in first downs on offense and last in first downs on defense. They are 30th in third-down efficiency on offense, and 31st in third-down efficiency on defense.

There just aren't too many places to look for hope for the 49ers.

Moreover, left tackle Jonas Jennings, whom San Francisco awarded a $12 million signing bonus to sign as a free agent from the Bills during the offseason, might need season-ending surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder. One of the team's better defenders, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, already has opted for season-ending surgery to reattach his left biceps muscle.

Already, the 49ers have lost their biggest offensive weapon from last year, tight end Eric Johnson, to a torn plantar fascia muscle under his right foot. Johnson accounted for 82 receptions for 825 yards last year. Steve Bush, his replacement, has just three catches for 21 yards through the first five games.

Also, cornerback Ahmed Plummer has missed two games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his left ankle. He is likely to miss another two or three games.

The success of the 49ers' final 11 games of the season will be based a lot on how well rookie quarterback Alex Smith performs. Smith, the top overall pick in the draft, was elevated into the starting role last week when Nolan decided to bench veteran Tim Rattay.

Smith will not leave the starting lineup unless he is injured, Nolan said.

The rookie's debut was a rocky one. In the 49ers' 28-3 loss to the Colts, Smith threw four interception, lost one of his two fumbles, was sacked five times and had a passer rating of 8.5.

"Things didn't go as planned," Smith said. "I learned a lot. It wasn't all bad. I need to take everything from it I can or it would be for nothing. ... There's a long road ahead of me. The bumps in the road now are going to make me a better quarterback down the line."

Afterward, Colts coach Tony Dungy went out of his way to give Smith some words of encouragement. Dungy told Smith that he was a Pittsburgh assistant when future Hall of Famer John Elway made his NFL debut against the Steelers in 1983.

"He said I looked a lot better than John Elway did in his first start," Smith said.

Smith has said repeatedly that he knows he will endure some growing pains as he adapts to the NFL after leaving college after an undefeated junior season at the University of Utah. But Smith said that does not mean he has low expectations for himself.

"I still think I need to expect myself to be the best quarterback I can be," Smith said. "I know I can play better than that. I don't think it's bad to be frustrated or disappointed because I know it's a good thing. I know I can play here. At the same time, though, you don't need to kill yourself because I know the situation and there's a long season ahead of us."

Likewise, Nolan knows he has to be tolerant of the mistakes that are to be expected from a rookie quarterback. But, apparently, Nolan still thinks Smith can be the man to lead the 49ers to the NFC West title.

"Oh, he'll have bad days in the future," Nolan said. "I'd like to see him improve each week but it would be dreaming for me to think he's not going to have a bad day as we go forward."

CHANGING ON THE RUN: It was not all negative for Smith in his starting debut last week against the Colts. When asked what he did best, Smith spoke of his role in the run game.

Often, the 49ers will call two plays in the huddle and the responsibility falls on the quarterback to choose the more advantageous play at the line of scrimmage. Thanks partly to Smith's decisions after breaking the huddle, Kevan Barlow rushed for a season-high 99 yards on 18 carries. Backup Frank Gore added 31 yards on eight carries.

"That's something I take a lot of pride in, getting us into the right play," Smith said.

GROWING FANGS: Assistant head coach Mike Singletary must get backup ILB Saleem Rasheed ready to take Jeff Ulbrich's role on defense. Ulbrich was a leader on the defense, and ranks first on the team and ninth in the NFL with 41 tackles.

"They're totally different," Singletary said. "Saleem is more like a cat. He's a cat-quick guy. He's a great athlete. Jeff is more of a dog. He's going to bite you. I haven't seen that in Saleem yet. He's got to grow some fangs real quick."

RASHEED DURING RAMADAN: Rasheed, a devout Muslim, is a little more than a week into Ramadan, the month of fasting. Rasheed will go 30 days without food or water during daylight hours. He has been observing Ramadan since he was 12 years old, growing up in Birmingham, Ala.

"You kind of get used to it," Rasheed said. "You condition your body and come up with a game plan and stick with it."

Rasheed eats high-protein foods in the morning before the sun comes up and then meat-and-potatoes types of meals in the evening. Because he does not take water breaks or drink Gatorade during the day, he does all of his hydrating at night.

QUASI-COACH ULBRICH: Nolan said he would like Ulbrich, who aspires to be a coach after his career is over, to take part in some meetings and serve as a quasi-coach for the remainder of the season. Singletary said he would also relish the opportunity to work alongside the sixth-year player.

"I'd definitely like him to be with me as much as he possibly could, so we could talk and challenge each other and learn together," said Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker. "I think that would be pretty neat."

BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers have surrendered 160 points in five games, an average of 32 points a game. At this pace, the 49ers would allow 512 points for the season. The team record is 453 points allowed in 1999. The 49ers just missed that record last season, when they surrendered 452 points.

PLAYER NOTES

--- QB Tim Rattay did not play against the Colts, as coach Mike Nolan benched him in favor of rookie Alex Smith. Rattay compiled a 70.3 passer rating (26th-best in the league) in his first four games before getting the hook. He is the team's backup quarterback, but the 49ers are also willing to listen to trade offers for him. The trade deadline is next Tuesday.

--- QB Cody Pickett suited up for his second game on special teams against the Colts. Pickett, the team's No. 4 quarterback, has seen action on kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt return. He also gives the 49ers the flexibility of using him on trick plays.

--- RB Kevan Barlow had his best game of the season, rushing for 99 yards on 18 carries against the Colts. He had two runs of 20 yards or more. Barlow was also the team's leading pass receiver, catching three for 29. Barlow is holding off rookie Frank Gore for the job as the team's featured back.

--- Gore runs with a determination the 49ers wish they would see out of Barlow. Gore does not dance in the hole. He hits the line hard. Against the Colts, Gore had eight carries for 31 yards and had a couple nice runs called back because of penalties. For the season, Gore has 109 yards on 25 carries.

--- FB Fred Beasley continues to be the starter, though his playing time has fallen off this season with new coaches Nolan and running backs coach Bishop Harris in charge. Backup Chris Hetherington is playing approximately one-third of the plays in which the 49ers have a fullback on the field. Beasley has not carried the football this season. He has two catches for 12 yards.

--- WR Arnaz Battle did not play Oct. 2 against the Cardinals, and he had to leave Sunday's game against the Colts early with a right knee sprain. He did not have a reception. The 49ers believe Battle will not be able to play Oct. 23 against the Redskins, when they come off the bye.

--- WR Brandon Lloyd came into last week's game with two straight 100-yard receiving days, but he did not even catch a pass in the loss to the Colts. Lloyd was held without a reception as Smith had a tough time getting the ball to his wideouts. Lloyd also has to show more consistency getting open.

--- WR Johnnie Morton was the only 49ers' wideout to catch a pass Sunday against the Colts. He had one reception for 13 yards. For the season, Morton has 10 receptions for 112 yards.

--- TE Steve Bush is a nonfactor in the offense, with just three catches for 21 yards. Last year, TE Eric Johnson led the 49ers with 82 catches for 825 yards.

--- K Joe Nedney has made all of his kicks this season, but he has not been called upon much. In five games, Nedney has just three field goals. Against the Colts, he was successful on one of his two onside-kick attempts. He has two successful onside kicks already in five games this season.

--- WR Otis Amey, the club's No. 4 receiver, has returned just six punts in the first four games, but one of them went for a 75-yard touchdown return. His average stands at 16.5, but he does not have enough returns to qualify as the league leader.

--- CB Bruce Thornton made the most of his first NFL start, holding Colts WR Marvin Harrison to just two catches for 17 yards. Thornton also had an interception. Thornton was only in the starting lineup because of injuries to four of the 49ers' top five cornerbacks. Nolan said he would give Thornton an opportunity to see action as the team's nickel back when everybody returns to health.

--- CB Ahmed Plummer underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle two weeks ago to remove a bone chip last week. He is expected to miss approximately three more games.

--- DE Bryant Young is tied for the league lead with six sacks through the first five games of the season.

--- LT Jonas Jennings, whom the 49ers awarded a $12 million signing bonus as an unrestricted free agent, might require season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. Jennings has a torn labrum. He said he is hoping the condition improves enough to allow him to finish the season, but if it does not respond to treatment, he will undergo surgery.

--- LB Derek Smith recorded his first interception of the season, picking off Peyton Manning last week. A week earlier, he had a fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.


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