Niners going vertical

The 49ers are going vertical, and it all begins tonight vs. the Chicago Bears when San Francisco unveils its supposedly new-and-improved offense to open the 2006 preseason. The change in approach and philosophy obviously coincides with new coordinator Norv Turner grabbing the offensive reins, but the other key reason the Niners made the switch will become apparent once the offense hits the field.

These definitely aren't your 2005 Niners, the team that had no deep passing attack to go along with everything else that was wrong with an offense that finished dead last in the NFL rankings in both total offense and passing offense, averaging a measly 118.6 yards passing per game.

The Niners finished with 117 yards passing or fewer in 11 of their 16 games last season – including 54 or fewer in six games; imagine that! – and, while that was a product of problems and ineffectiveness up and down the offense, it also was a result of the team having no deep threats opposing defenses had to respect.

That's none, as in zero.

But no more.

"We can stretch the field much better with Vernon (Davis), Eric (Johnson), with Antonio (Bryant), with Bryan (Gilmore), with Delanie (Walker)," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "That's five guys who weren't on the field last year."

And that's five guys who promise to make a difference when they're on the field this year.

Last year, the 49ers' best deep threat in the passing game was … hmm. … uh … well … let's see … In reality, they didn't have one. Leading receiver Brandon Lloyd had an 89-yard touchdown reception in Week 3 against Dallas and averaged a team-leading 15.3 yards per catch, but it's laughable to suggest he was a deep threat. The long TD against the Cowboys came when Lloyd slipped behind coverage and ran across the field to the end zone, but otherwise there were few defensive backs in the NFL who respected Lloyd's speed or ever had to worry about him getting behind them.

But now opposing DBs will have to worry. Davis, the No. 6 overall selection in the NFL draft this year, runs a documented 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. And, that's at 253 pounds. The 235-pound Walker, a tweener who has a receiver's mentality, clocks in at 4.47 seconds in the 40. Bryant and Gilmore both clock in at the 4.4 level, and both probably can get below it.

Some said Davis, despite his size, might immediately become the fastest player on the team when he was drafted, but Bryant and Gilmore are swifter in the open field and run experienced, precise routes, and they are the best stretch-the-field candidates the 49ers have had at receiver since Terrell Owens left town after the 2003 season.

While Johnson is the slowest afoot of the receiving threats who weren't around in 2005 – the sixth-year veteran missed the entire season to injury – he is a converted college receiver who creates mismatches with his ability to slip off the line and get open on the short and intermediate routes.

"That's a lot of names that brings us better speed," Nolan said.

Add to the equation Turner and his variation of the vertical offense that has found success at each of his previous five NFL stops, and the Niners won't be spending 60 minutes each Sunday attempting to dink and dunk their way down the field.

That has become evident during training camp the past two weeks, when Alex Smith appeared to turn the corner as a quarterback who can throw long. Smith has been airing it out deep to Bryant and Gilmore on go routes, and Davis and Walker have shown great promise as tight-end complements who have the speed to get behind safeties. While he's no speed demon, third-round draft pick Brandon Williams also has shown the shiftiness and quickness to get open, especially underneath when other receivers are clearing out space on deep routes.

"That whole group is raising the bar," Smith said. "We've definitely upgraded and there's a lot more talent there. But it's just not (improved speed). The biggest thing from my perspective is it's much more competitive as a group. You have a handful of guys now who can all go out and make plays, and they're pushing each other."

So, speed pushes just like speed kills. The 49ers are hoping to see a lot of the latter in their new offense, and tonight's battle with the Bears will offer the first sneak preview of the Niners' intention to go long in 2006.

"That's a result of new playbook and new players both," Nolan said. "It's a part of what (Turner) does from time to time, and I think it suits the guys we have. It's something that we set out to do in the offseason, get better on both sides of the ball and make explosive plays. Alex certainly has got a better surrounding cast than he had a year ago, but at the same time there is a lot of coordination that goes into making it work effectively. (Tonight) will be a first step for it."

And don't be surprised if the first step is a long one.

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