Defense looking like last year?

The 49ers spent most of their offseason resources on surrounding quarterback Alex Smith with better players. Meanwhile, the defense was virtually neglected. And it shows.

The San Francisco defense has been overmatched in its past two exhibition games when up against the first teams of the Raiders and Cowboys. In one half against the Cowboys' regulars - minus Terrell Owens - the 49ers surrendered 309 total yards and did not force a punt.

"We looked a little bit like we did last year, to be honest with you," coach Mike Nolan said after a 17-7 loss to the Cowboys. "We were running around, but it just wouldn't come out in our favor. I want to see signs that we're better than we were a year ago, not the same."

A week earlier, Nolan said the team played flat. But Nolan felt the 49ers played hard against the Cowboys. They just didn't play effectively.

The 49ers owned the worst-ranked offense and defense in the league last season while compiling a 4-12 record.

The offense shows signs of being marginally improved from last season. It has more weapons in the passing game, but the 49ers plan to be a run-oriented offense to help keep the team's defense off the field. Despite trading running back Kevan Barlow last week to the Jets for a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft, the 49ers believe the run game will carry the load. Second-year player Frank Gore is expected to be the featured back.

Most of the improvements the team made to its roster in the off-season were on offense. The 49ers added receiver Antonio Bryant and tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall selection in the draft. They also bulked up the offensive line with the addition of left guard Larry Allen. Smith, who struggled as a rookie, has looked better in his second training camp.

Defensively, the 49ers lost outside linebacker Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, and released cornerback Ahmed Plummer. They added veteran cornerback Walt Harris and selected outside linebacker Manny Lawson with the No. 22 overall selection.

The 49ers expect to pay close attention to what teams around the league are doing on the final cutdown date. They have needs at every position on defense, and it's not out of the question the club could claim a player who ends up contributing in a hurry.

"Everybody knows we have to get better because when we're into the regular season, we can't play like this," defensive end Marques Douglas said after the loss to the Cowboys.

The biggest area of concern is the team's pass defense. The first-team defense has not recorded a sack in three exhibition games. Lawson appears to be the team's best pass-rush threat. The 49ers hope veteran Bryant Young can recapture his knack for getting to the quarterback. Young led the 49ers with eight sacks last year but none after midseason.

The secondary will need all the help it can get. The 49ers expect to get starting cornerback Shawntae Spencer back for the regular season, but there is concern about the team's starting free safety position, as Mike Adams, Mark Roman and Chad Williams are competing for the job. Nolan said veteran Tony Parrish might not be secure at strong safety, either, after the first-unit defense allowed 309 yards in the first half against Dallas.

--- TE Vernon Davis has moved ahead of veteran Eric Johnson, but Nolan said he considers both players as starters. Davis caught his first TD pass of the exhibition season, a 15-yard strike from QB Alex Smith in the third quarter against the Cowboys. Davis has two receptions for 20 yards in three exhibition games.
--- P Tom Rouen had a remarkable game against the Cowboys, averaging 54.3 yards on three punts, and may be taking a lead over incumbent Andy Lee. Rouen dropped all three of his punts inside the Dallas 5-yard line.
--- WR Arnaz Battle is still considered the starter, if healthy, but Bryan Gilmore received most of the playing time with the first-team offense. Gilmore played 23 snaps, while Battle was on the field for 12 plays with the starters. Battle had one catch for 15 yards, while Gilmore did not have a reception.
--- FS Mark Roman is still in the mix for the starting job against Mike Adams. Roman made three tackles, broke up two passes and intercepted a pass against the Cowboys.
--- LB Derek Smith left the game against the Cowboys in the first half after suffering from "heat illness," the team said. Smith is listed as probable for the 49ers' exhibition finale Friday against the Chargers.
--QB Shaun Hill, competing with Jesse Palmer for the team's No. 3 spot, completed 3-of-5 passes for 30 yards. He also ran once for a 14-yard gain on a third-and-15.
--- CB Shawntae Spencer missed his second exhibition game with a pulled right hamstring. He is not expected to play in the final tuneup Friday against the Chargers, but the club believes he will be ready to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 10 against the Cardinals.

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