Getting an edge on the edge

If the root of all evil in the 49ers' dismal defensive performance last season can be traced to their pass rush, then that's the first place you look Friday night to see if the NFL's reigning worst defense is headed for improvement in 2006. And the first players you look at might as well be Brandon Moore and Manny Lawson, since they represent the biggest changes in that pass rush compared to 2005.

Lawson will make his first professional start in San Francisco's exhibition opener against the Chicago Bears, and Moore will be operating at his new post as the starting outside linebacker on the opposite side. They will attempt to come to the rescue for a 3-4 defensive scheme that produced only 27 sacks in its debut season with the 49ers last year.

First thing's first. Lawson and Moore each fully understand what their role is in the defense, and the importance it plays in getting the 49ers in the face of opposing quarterbacks.

"The outside linebackers in this defense are responsible for causing disruption in the offensive backfield," Moore said Wednesday. "That's part of my job to get that done."

The biggest part, actually. The 49ers will depend on their edge linebackers to swarm the quarterback and confuse opposing linemen - not to mention opposing offensive schemes - with the several different roles that position entails.

Moore, after emerging as a linebacker who can make plays last year in his fourth season with the 49ers, knows the system and says he's feeling "really comfortable where I am right now."

The 49ers are feeling comfortable with him there too this summer, even though the team was hoping to use Moore in a specialized role and as a top backup to all four linebacker positions when San Francisco inked him to a five-year, $8 million deal during the offseason.

But Moore, after finishing second on the team in tackles last year, proved during the spring that he belonged on the field as one of the team's top four linebackers, so that's where the 49ers put him heading into training camp.

It makes perfect sense. Though Moore's size (6-foot-1, 246 pounds) and skills might be better suited to the inside, he led all San Francisco linebackers and was second on the team last year with five sacks. Even though he started just one game at OLB last year, Moore finished with more sacks than each of the regular OLB starters - the more-heralded Julian Peterson and Andre Carter.

Now that he's taking Carter's spot in the starting lineup, Moore is eager to show everybody he belongs.

"My whole perspective on my preparation and performance has changed a little bit," Moore said. "Going into last year I was just trying to prove to coach (Mike) Nolan, coach (Mike) Singletary and (defensive coordinator) Billy Davis that I could be an asset to the organization. Now I think they realize I have some strengths that can help us win. So it's important to me now to go out and set my own tone and prove to all those around me that I do belong where I am right now."

Lawson rode a much faster track to his starting slot on the opposite edge - he was selected by the 49ers with No. 22 overall selection in the NFL draft, then immediately plopped in the starting lineup after having starred as a defensive end in college.

In Lawson, the 49ers see their next Great Pass-Rushing Hope. His angular frame, long arms and tremendous speed translate well to the edge in the 3-4, even if it's expected to take a while for the rookie to evolve in the role during his on-the-job training.

That training now gets stepped up a few notches as the exhibition season begins Friday.

"It's my first game, my first NFL experience, and I want to get the most out of it that I can," Lawson said. "It's going to be a huge learning curve for me, but I know my job and responsibility and what I'm supposed to do within the defense. I know my playbook in and out. I'm also learning what my other teammates are doing around me and these guys push me along and teach me the tricks of the trade. That's just going to make me a stronger player."

While Moore figures to play a more conventional linebacker role, often playing over the tight end, Lawson will be moved around and appear both up and down at the time of the snap.

The 6-foot-5, 242-pound rookie will line up in both a two-point stance at linebacker and a three-point stance along the line in some defensive alignments. The 49ers will attempt to keep opponents guessing by dropping Lawson into coverage and rushing him from both positions, utilizing him as their pass-rushing secret weapon.

"I'll be doing a lot of pass rush," is all Lawson would reveal about how he'll be used in the scheme.

And why not? It's the primary reason Lawson was drafted, and it's what he does best.

"You can see on film and in practice that he's an excellent pass rusher," Moore said. "It's probably one of the strongest things that he does. He's excellent at it. Once he finds his niche and gets comfortable with his surroundings and everything that's going on with him, he's going to do a great job."

To accumulate sacks at the NFL level like he did in college, where Lawson with 12th in the nation last year with 10.5 sacks as a North Carolina State defensive end, Lawson already is learning what he needs to do to get an edge on the edge.

"It's mainly about get off," he said. "And what I have to my advantage is my arms and my length. If I get my hands on an offensive back or anybody around the corner before they get their (hands) on me, usually I'm going to win that battle.

To be sure, Lawson and Moore will need to win more edge battles than Peterson and Carter won last year, when the 49ers ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense and 31st in sacks per play.

Those two former first-round draft picks combined for 7.5 sacks on the season. It would be a disappointment if Lawson doesn't get at least that many by himself as a rookie, and the 49ers wouldn't mind seeing Moore approach that number either.

"At times he's in his world, and at times I'm in my own world," Moore said. "But if you look at it in terms of the whole total defense, we have our own responsibilities collectively to perform well. His assignments will vary and so will mine, but collectively, we have to be sharp every play."

The 49ers and their pass rush are counting on it.

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