The 49ers last season owned the worst offense in the league and the worst defense in the league. While they put some resources into improving the offense, they did not do much with the defense. Their shortcomings on defense have been apparent in the exhibition season, including a loss to the Cowboys in which they were manhandled against the run and the pass. "We looked a little bit like we did last year, to be honest with you," Nolan said. "I want to see signs that we're better than we were a year ago, not the same." Leading up to the regular-season opener, the 49ers are still tinkering with the style of defense they plan to play this season. Last year, Nolan implemented a 3-4 defense. But the team ended up playing more 4-3 than expected because their linebacker corps was depleted. The 49ers had expected to play a 3-4 this season, but because they have been getting overmatched physically, they might end up going to a 4-3 to get a bigger body on the field. Nolan claims that such indecision is not a big deal because the 3-4 defense can easily transform into a defense with a defensive lineman taking the place of a linebacker. While the defense will be the major area of concern, the offense appears to be much better. Quarterback Alex Smith has looked vastly improved over his rookie season, when he threw just one touchdown pass to go along with 11 interceptions. The 49ers have added free-agent left guard Larry Allen to bring some brute force to the team's rushing attack. Left tackle Jonas Jennings played just three games last season, and would give the team a huge upgrade if he remains healthy. Right tackle Kwame Harris, a first-round pick in the 2003 draft, had a good offseason and is stronger and more confident than he has ever been in his NFL career. Smith should be well-protected by an improved offensive line and an improved running game. Second-year player Frank Gore won the starting job over Kevan Barlow, who was promptly traded to the Jets for a fourth-round pick in next year's draft. Smith also has better weapons on offense. His top target appears to be receiver Antonio Bryant, with whom he has built a solid rapport. Top pick Vernon Davis should give the 49ers a deep threat from the tight end position. Backup tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 82 passes two years ago before missing last season with a foot injury, is expected to get a lot of playing time in two-tight end sets. The 49ers' only hope to remain competitive on a weekly basis is if the offense is improved enough to control the clock and keep the defense off the field. Nolan said he expects to run the ball 60 percent of the time, which could open things up for the passing game to make some plays down the field. Unless things go perfectly for the 49ers, they will likely have another high draft pick, giving them the chance to concentrate on improving defensively via the draft. BY THE NUMBERS: 2,672 -- Total yards by which the 49ers were outgained last season, which is the most since the NFL merger. QUOTE TO NOTE: "Do you want to go back to (salary-cap) hell at the expense of these two guys? Otherwise, we would've been right back where we were before" -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the club being approximately $10 million under the cap because it decided not to re-sign LBs Andre Carter and Julian Peterson in the offseason. PLAYER TO WATCH: DE Melvin Oliver -- The sixth-round pick from LSU had an impressive training camp and has worked his way into the starting lineup. Because of Oliver, it looks as if the 49ers have decided to use a 4-3 defense as its base package. The 49ers like Oliver's athleticism and hope he can help supply with some muscle against the run and some juice for its pass rush. DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/6, TE Vernon Davis, Maryland: Has exceptional size and speed. Initially has opened eyes with his blocking, but coach Mike Nolan wants to see him get his hands on the ball a lot this season.
Rd. 1/22, LB Manny Lawson, N.C. State: Spent a lot of time working on his coverage skills during training camp, but his biggest asset to the team should be his pass-rush ability. Lawson was a starter from the first day, and the 49ers expect him to be an impact player for many seasons.
Rd. 3/84, WR Brandon Williams, Wisconsin: Struggling to work his way into the mix on offense, but his biggest contribution to the team will be as a return man. He is sure-handed on punts, and should be an improvement over the players the 49ers have thrown back there in previous seasons.
Rd. 4/100, RB Michael Robinson, Penn State: Had a fantastic training camp on offense and special teams. He has made a fast transition from QB, where he played his senior season in college. Robinson might fit in initially as a third-down back, but has a chance to be an every-down style back in the future.
Rd. 5/140, LB Parys Haralson, Tennessee: Sustained a left foot strain on Aug. 15 and is expected to miss the first week or so of the regular season. When he returns, the door is open for him to contribute because of his pass-rush skills.
Rd. 6/175, TE Delanie Walker, Central Missouri State: When given an opportunity, has been very impressive after a college career as a wideout. Walker is an intriguing player because of his ball skills. Has a chance to work his way into a role on kickoff returns, too.
Rd. 6/192, CB Marcus Hudson, N.C. State: Began camp at safety but was moved to cornerback after a couple weeks. If the players in front of him struggle, he has a chance to work into a role in San Francisco's nickel package.
Rd. 6/197, DE Melvin Oliver, Louisiana State: Played well in the exhibition season and looks as if he's worked his way into a starting role for the opening of the regular season.
The quick fix is not in
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