Niners may be switching numbers in 3-4 scheme

Injuries are making it difficult for the 49ers to remain true to their 3-4 defensive scheme, which might wind up looking more like a 4-3 set for a while. With two of their top outside linebackers hurting, the Niners are tinkering with personnel changes that could find them playing with four defensive linemen this week, even though they say that alignment is just a variation of their 3-4 package.

"Our system is so flexible," defensive coordinator Billy Davis said Tuesday. "It's built out of a 3-4, but it easily moves right into a 4-3. We can actually play with one group of players a 4-3 scheme and with the same type of calls move to a 3-4. It's a very flexible package that you can move in and out of due to injuries, as we have during the course of a game or like we're doing here during the week."

This week in practice, it's a move being made out of necessity.

Fifth-year veteran Brandon Moore, the team's leader among linebackers in 2005 with five sacks, will sit out of practice this week to rest a knee strain and won't play in Saturday's preseason game against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Moore's top backup, rookie Parys Haralson, hasn't practiced in a week with a foot strain and is expected to be out the rest of the preseason and miss time into the regular season.

Two others that figured into the equation at outside linebacker - Renauld Williams and Andre Torrey - also are shelved by injuries. Williams is out for a few more weeks with a high ankle sprain. Torrey is lost for the season after tearing knee ligaments and already has been placed on injured reserve.

That leaves the 49ers with fourth-year pro Corey Smith and undrafted rookie Bobby Iwuchukwu as the top candidates to line up this week as the starter at outside linebacker opposite rookie Manny Lawson.

And that leaves the 49ers thinking they might have to come up with a better way to get their best 11 defenders onto the field.

"Based on what we decided, the next best guy to put on the (field) will not be one of them (Smith and Iwuchukwu)," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "They'll factor in pretty good, but I think I got a better 11 without one of them out there on the field."

Melvin Oliver, welcome to the big time.

After reviewing last week's game against Oakland and evaluating personnel, the 49ers feel Oliver - one of the team's three sixth-round draft picks in April - deserves a shot to see what he can bring to the San Francisco defense and a flagging pass rush that has produced just one sack in two preseason games. Oliver had two tackles against the Raiders and tied for the team lead with three tackles the week before against Chicago.

Oliver, however, is a 280-pound defensive end not exactly suited for edge duties in a 3-4 system. But he saw time with the first-unit defense during Tuesday's practice, which gave the 49ers a decided 4-3 look.

"We were just playing with some things," Nolan said. "I need to see him play more, so I'm just kind of throwing him in there in different ways. We're just trying to get the best guys on the field more than anything else, and sometimes there's a limitation to that."

The limitation with Oliver is that he never has played linebacker and doesn't figure to be asked to do it at this level. But he's a good fit as a 4-3 defensive end, where he led all LSU defensive lineman last year as a senior with 67 tackles, nine sacks and 11 tackles for losses.

Oliver has flashed the skills of a young player with potential during training camp, and now it's earning him a longer look this week and quite possibly a starting role against the Cowboys as the Niners look to improve a defense that regressed while allowing 394 total yards in Sunday's 23-7 exhibition loss at Oakland.

"We can use his abilities in either scheme," Davis said. "He's a strong kid, but at 280, the defensive linemen in a 4-3 are a little bit bigger, and Melvin's got great feel of the other guy's body, like a good wrestler can take a guy's strength and flip him. Melvin's doing a nice job using his hands, getting rid of blocks and getting out of tough spots because of his athleticism.

"We move them (defensive linemen) a lot and the moving part helps Melvin. And Melvin can play the 2-gap well enough to hold in there. Now, if he's in there every snap we won't do as much of the 2-gapping. We'll do more of the moving. If other guys are in there that are bigger, we'll do more of the 2-gapping. That's kind of how the system fluctuates as far as what players are in there and what we're going to try to ask them to do. We're going to try to ask them to do the things they do the best the most amount of times. It does change as the players change in and out of there."

The change this week is to see how Oliver can fit in and what kind of impact he can make. The 49ers are running out of other options to improve the pressure they get on opposing quarterbacks.

"I relish the opportunity," Oliver said. "It's a great position to make plays. I'm just trying to learn the position right now, but I feel like I'll adjust well. I've always been a defensive lineman, so they don't want to make too many changes too fast."

Tuesday's practice was just for experimentation. When the 49ers officially break training camp Wednesday, they'll have a specific defensive plan in place as they move closer to Saturday's game and the end of the preseason a week later.

"As I've always said, the good thing about what we do is that there is great flexibility to go from one (scheme) to the other," Nolan said. "If that's what we have to do to get the best 11, that's what we have to do."

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