Game buzz: 49ers vs. Chargers

The 49ers will take one last long look at their 75-man summer roster during tonight's preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers, then have a fitful early morning of numerous personnel judgments to make before cutting down to a 53-man squad by 1 p.m. Saturday. Here is what we're hearing and seeing about what's pertinent to the 49ers in tonight's game at San Francisco's Monster Park.

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Don't expect to learn much tonight about the true 49ers you will see during the Sept. 10 regular-season opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

Coach Mike Nolan plans to play his regulars "12 to 15 plays, or a quarter, whatever comes first," he said. So that will mean about two series – at best – for San Francisco's front-line players before they take a sideline seat for the rest of the evening.

Some of them already will be there when game begins. The Niners will hold out defensive end Bryant Young, running back Frank Gore, linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, cornerback Walt Harris and offensive guard Larry Allen. There are a few other players that could be game-time decisions whether they see action or not.

While looking for progress after poor efforts in the team's past two preseason games at Oakland and Dallas, Nolan understands the need to preserve his team with the season opener just nine days away.

"The thing I wish was not this way is that it's our last preseason game," Nolan said. "So, you do have to worry about getting too many guys out there. When you talk about efficiency, some of the guys aren't going to be out there playing. You still want to see efficiency from the guys that are out there together, because it could look that way during the season at any time."

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Those starters listed above are being saved for the regular season, but several other 49ers will be playing for their roster lives against the Chargers.

There also will be several battles going to the preseason wire for starting positions, most notably in the defensive backfield and at fullback, where the team is unlikely to keep both Moran Norris and Chris Hetherington as it moves toward a one-back offense. There's a chance the team could move forward without either of them because of its depth at tight end/F-back, but one is likely to stick.

Fullback is one of the few positions on the team where a player currently fighting for a starting berth might not even make the final roster.

The most conspicuous position being ruled by that circumstance is punter, where third-year incumbent Andy Lee is being pushed hard by 14th-year veteran Tom Rouen.

"That's probably the best battle going on," Nolan said.

Only one of them will make the final roster, which means there will be one pretty good punter on the waiver wire by Saturday afternoon.

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Lee, the 49ers' third-round pick in 2004, has been making nice progress since being handed the role as a rookie. But he never has received a summer challenge like the one that has been presented by Rouen over the past month.

"I had similar pressures (as a rookie) to come in and do well and prove myself," Lee said. "But this year it's a little different. There's definitely more pressure now than I've ever had.

"I think one of the reasons (Rouen was signed earlier this summer) was to put pressure on me, to bring somebody in here that definitely has a chance to be here other than me. In the past, there hasn't been too much of that. But coach Nolan said he was going to bring in competition. I just have to do my job. Whoever they bring in doesn't affect me. I still have to do what I have to do. Basically, I just need to focus on what I need to do and worry about my next punt. I can't worry about his."

But Rouen definitely has given Lee something to worry about. Against Dallas last week, Rouen had a dream game for a punter, averaging 54.3 yards on his three kicks and placing each of them inside the Dallas 4-yard line. On Lee's two punts, he averaged 39 yards, including a weak net of just 24 yards.

Rouen, in fact, has been out-performing Lee throughout the summer, both in practice and games.

Each has had seven punts through three preseason games. Rouen has averaged 47.6 yards with a 41.7 net with five being downed inside the 20-yard line. Lee has averaged 40.6 with a 34.3 net and just one downed inside the 20.

"I'm the one that's going to win this job for myself or lose this job for myself," Lee said. "I can't worry about what he's doing because then that will affect my punts or my performance."

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Though he has been outstanding this summer, Rouen remains realistic. At 38, he is 14 years older than Lee, who just turned 24 two weeks ago. Lee is one of the few young holdovers from the previous 49ers regime that has shown development and growth at his position.

Though Rouen told SFI "I think I can play another four or five years," the 49ers definitely will think twice about putting the extra monetary investment (Rouen's minimum veteran salary would be about $250,000 more than the Niners would have to pay Lee this year) needed to keep an aging player while at the same time sending away a young player with upside.

Nolan said throughout training camp that Rouen would have to clearly be better to beat out Lee for the job. So far, he has been. Now the question becomes, how much better?

"You know, I don't know," said Rouen, who has a strong 43.4 average on his 810 career punts. "I don't worry about that stuff. I just come in and play as well as I can and just let them sort everything else out. A lot of that is out of my control. I'm just trying to get better and get to where I'm ready to play at the highest level in this league.

"Obviously, I want to be here. But if it doesn't work out here, I've shown that I can still play. That gets you set up. As long as you're playing well and playing up to your potential, then you always have a good shot at playing for someone."

Tonight's game in the tricky winds at Monster Park obviously will play huge in the evaluation of both punters if the 49ers haven't made their decision at the position already. In the Aug. 11 preseason opener against Chicago in San Francisco, Rouen averaged 37.5 yards on his two punts and Lee averaged 26.5 on his two tries.

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The 49ers have been made 3½-point favorites by oddsmakers in tonight's game, the first time they've been favored during the preseason.

That has as much to do with the 49ers playing at home as it does with the Chargers holding out several of their key regulars.

San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer might sit out his top starters entirely. The 49ers will dodge high-powered offensive weapons such as running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates as only one regular starter on offense is expected to play – rookie tackle Marcus McNeill. Even though he's yet to start a regular-season NFL game, starting quarterback Philip Rivers also will sit. The Chargers will start rookie Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, and he will get an extended look.

On the defensive side, linebacker Donnie Edwards is expected to make his preseason debut after missing most of training camp with a back injury. Edwards may just be showcasing his skills for others as his name has been mentioned in trade rumors and it's being speculated he no longer fits into the Chargers' plans.

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Mark Roman is extremely close to earning a starting position at safety, and if the seventh-year veteran makes plays in the secondary tonight and continues the strong progress he has displayed the past few weeks in San Francisco's defensive system, he could earn a starting spot at free safety over Mike Adams or even strong safety over Tony Parrish.

"Every time I'm out on the field, I just want to put my best foot forward," Roman said. "Everything else will take care of itself. I've done some good things, but there's always room for improvement. But I'm starting to play a lot faster and understand a lot more about our defense. I am starting to do some things everywhere I am. It's starting to make sense a whole lot. But still, I'm just going to control what I can control and let everything else take care of itself."

Roman, Parrish, Adams and newcomer veteran Chad Williams remained locked in a four-way battle for two starting slots that might not ultimately be determined until after tonight's game.

Nolan also indicated one of those players might be battling just to keep his berth on the roster.

"We could keep three, four, or five (safeties)," Nolan said.

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Some of the players who survive Saturday's cuts shouldn't be getting too comfortable.

The 49ers, still looking for upgrades in several areas, are likely to make a few other roster moves after they peruse the waiver wire that will be chock full of potential help after other NFL teams make their final cuts.

Nolan didn't deny that the 49ers will be on the lookout for top rejects from other teams. He made that clear when he was asked this week how closely he'll be monitoring the waiver wire on Saturday.

"Very close," Nolan responded.

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