No jobs etched in stone on this defense

The 49ers are taking it up to the 11th hour to determine who will be the 11 defenders that take the field for them to start the regular season Sept. 10 at Arizona. With that opener less than two weeks away, the 49ers still aren't certain whether they will start in a 4-3 or 3-4 set, and as many as three starting positions still are up for grabs entering Friday's exhibition finale against San Diego.

And rightly so.

After a promising start to the preseason Aug. 10 against Chicago, when the 49ers limited the Bears to 252 total yards and held them scoreless in the first half, San Francisco's defensive unit has fallen back into disarray instead of solidifying as coach Mike Nolan had hoped.

The 49ers were pushed around by the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, allowing 394 and 489 yards on consecutive weeks while losing the time of possession battle by a 2-1 margin in those two games.

Injuries have contributed to the problem, but for the most part the 49ers have just plain struggled with inconsistency and flawed performance. It has Nolan and his crew continuing to juggle both the defensive scheme and the personnel that's being plugged into it as they search for answers.

They need to find them quick, because the Niners - if they want to give themselves any chance to get off to a good start in 2006 - can't go into the season with a defense that so closely resembles the shoddy unit that finished dead last in the NFL rankings last year.

There's one more test run Friday to try to get it right and find solutions. While virtually dozens of players will be fighting for roster spots in that game, several roster locks will be fighting for starting positions while Nolan still works to come up with what scheme and what players work best together on defense.

"Yes, we will be playing, or experimenting, with the lineups," Nolan said.

These days, the 49ers are experimenting every 24 hours, and making changes in spans even shorter than that.

Early Sunday evening, while reviewing his team's 17-7 loss in Dallas that was more lopsided than the final score, Nolan said linebacker Brandon Moore - coming back from a minor knee injury that kept him out of practice last week - would return to the field as an inside linebacker because, "Brandon is better inside than outside," Nolan said. "He is going to compete with the other (inside) guys for the starting position."

Moore had been the team's starter at left outside linebacker throughout training camp before being hurt during a 23-7 loss to the Raiders on Aug. 20.

But when the 49ers took the field Monday afternoon for a feisty practice in full pads, Moore was practicing mostly at outside linebacker, and he was doing it mostly with the reserve units.

"Well, we'll see how he is," Nolan said after practice. "He could be moving inside or outside. I know (what Nolan said about Moore's status on Sunday), but in this 3-4, or 4-3 defense, we can go anywhere we want. The first question I have to answer is how far Brandon is from returning. I'll have to watch the film to see how he did. Melvin (Oliver) will get some reps, and we'll see where that takes us. The key to that will be Brandon, and how far along he is."

The other option being considered is using Oliver, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, at defensive end in a 4-3 alignment that can be morphed back easily to a 3-4.

The 49ers started in that set in Dallas, but the results were not encouraging. But with Moore still returning to form and outside linebacker Parys Haralson - another promising rookie - still shelved by injury, Oliver is being considered for a starting role to begin the season. Oliver was in on only one tackle in the loss to the Cowboys.

"I'm not sold that Melvin Oliver is one of the best 11 guys right now because he is a rookie," Nolan said. "In time, it would be nice, but I'm not sold on that yet. He's trying to prove that while he's out there. If I don't see that, I have to juggle with something. Who is that 11th guy? We'll see."

As the Niners make that determination, they also are contemplating a late makeover in the secondary.

While the 49ers appear set with cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Walt Harris as their opening-day cornerbacks, the competition for starting roles at safety intensified against Dallas when veteran Tony Parrish - the rock of the San Francisco secondary since he arrived in 2002 - struggled in deep coverage.

Parrish, coming back from ankle and fibula fractures suffered last November, has been slow to return to form during the preseason, and Nolan did not endorse Parrish's play or guarantee his starting status when discussing the ninth-year player Sunday. Nolan backpedaled a bit on those comments Monday, saying, "If we started today, Tony would be the guy because that's the way he goes into the game. If there was a game today he'd be the guy."

But veteran newcomers Chad Williams and Mark Roman both are in the mix, and both have starting NFL experience at strong safety. Both Roman and Williams also are pushing incumbent starter Mike Adams at free safety, with Roman making a big stride in that competition with his performance against Dallas, when he had three tackles, a big hit, two passes defensed and an interception near the goal line that he returned 30 yards to thwart a Dallas drive.

"I think the fact that Mark Roman has playing experience has shown in his performance," Nolan said. "I think he is competing pretty strong in that position. I think Chad Williams is competing in that area because of his experience also, and that's why this is occurring. Tony's competition isn't what it was last year. He's got more competition. That‘s not just that position. That's several positions on the team.

"That's just where we are at. We are in training camp and I would like to think those guys know because I tell them that they are competing for a job. Everyone recognizes that and I think Tony does also. You want a guy who works out here every day like I don't want somebody to take my job. That's the reality for all of us. I would think that someone would not be insulted by that, or taken back. If anything it would inspire them to say, ‘He's right, I'm out here to earn my job.'"

Parrish, who had started 121 consecutive games to begin his NFL career before being hurt last year, was succinct in his replies when discussing the subject before practice Monday, giving a strong impression that he did not appreciate the line of questioning or that his status might be in doubt because of what he did or didn't do in a few preseason games.

"That's the nature of the game, right?" Parrish said. "You go out, you perform. Everyone is always competing. I'm coming off a broken leg, and there's still some small things that I'm working on. But I feel fine. I'm preparing myself. I'll be ready."

Said Nolan, "I think Tony thinks he's the (starting) guy and that's fine, but you have got to come out here and prove it every day. You also have to prove it in the game. Starting positions are very fragile if you think about it. If somebody behind you is playing well, that's the nature of this business. If it were an easy job, then these guys would be making peanuts. It's not. It's a tough, volatile job that you can lose. That's what makes it what it is. So, there are no jobs that are etched in stone."

As there shouldn't be on this defense, where only a handful of established veterans are certain to either begin the season in the starting lineup or still be there by the time the 49ers reach midseason in late October.

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