Rookies changing way Niners play defense

They're not really rookies anymore. At least that's the way Manny Lawson and Melvin Oliver see it - and that's the way they're playing it. The two first-year pros have emerged as vital starters on a revamped San Francisco defense that's still searching for an identity, and the skill, energy and versatility each brings is changing the way the 49ers play on that side of the football.

Just five games into their NFL debuts, Lawson and Oliver already are playing key roles - and becoming key playmakers - on a unit that finished dead last in the NFL in total defense last season. And the performance of each is shaping how the 49ers tweak the different variations of their ever-evolving 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes.

"We're just stepping up and playing," Lawson said Thursday. "Not necessarily as a rookie, but playing as a veteran on the field with other vets. That's the mind frame that we have to have, and that's what we're doing."

The 49ers have been adjusting their system accordingly to take advantage of the skills of the two youngest players on their starting defense.

Coach Mike Nolan's background is as a 3-4 defensive coordinator, but the 49ers clearly have evolved into a 4-3 team so far this year as they prepare for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers and an offense that's currently ranked sixth in the NFL.

That's where Oliver, a 280-pound end, has made his impact in the transition. The 49ers lined up with a four-man line for 45 of their 56 defensive plays in last week's 34-20 victory over Oakland, with Oliver taking most of the snaps in the team's base defense.

"I think I'm doing the right things, or they wouldn't have me out on the field," Oliver said. "I'm just trying to do the right things and trying to be in the right place at the right times, and I think my versatility kind of helps a little bit. Being able to move around on the defense, I can play both sides whatever defense we're in. It gives me more opportunities on the field."

Oliver has been taking advantage of his opportunities since he started earning them with strong play this summer. The unheralded sixth-round draft choice out of LSU immediately established himself as one of San Francisco's best defensive linemen during training camp and the preseason.

But there were two major obstacles to Oliver getting on the field. The 49ers already had Bryant Young and Marques Douglas - two of the team's best veteran players - starting at end in their 3-4 scheme.

The 49ers remedied that situation by adding Oliver to their regular front wall and sliding Douglas inside to tackle. That meant changing their base scheme to a 4-3, and having Oliver on the field instead of outside linebacker Brandon Moore on first and seconds downs, which is how the team would have played it in a conventional 3-4 set.

"I do like the play of Melvin," Nolan said. "He's doing a good job and he's helping us on the run. He's doing some very good things. I would say he's more of a tackle than an end, but he plays end for us, so he's got some ability to go play that. But in a perfect world, I think he'd be more of an end. He's lost some weight to do the things we've asked him to do right now. He's done a good job and is one of our best linemen right now. That's why he's on the field."

The 49ers haven't been disappointed with the results. Oliver has been a mainstay against the run, and he became the first rookie defensive lineman in the team's 61-year history to score a touchdown when he returned a botched lateral 12 yards into the end zone last week against the Raiders.

"I'm just glad to be out there," Oliver said. "Coach Nolan sees some good things in me, or he wouldn't have me in that position. So I'm just trying to take full advantage of the opportunities I'm given. I'm all for the team. Whatever the team needs, you've got to do. I just have to play when my number's called."

Like Oliver, the 49ers are moving around Lawson in their various schemes. The rookie from North Carolina State - the No. 22 overall selection in this year's draft - was one of the nation's premier pass rushers last season as a defensive end. But he's making his impact now as a linebacker who's being used in other ways.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the things he can do," Nolan said. "I thought it would take him a little bit longer to adapt to some things. But so is the case when you get a guy who is smart and tough and has the work ethic that he has. He is very well suited for a 3-4 on the outside. But I also have come to the conclusion that he does a good job in a 4-3 as well."

Lawson ranks third on the team with two sacks, but the 49ers took him off the field on third downs last week and inserted either Moore or rookie Parys Haralson to rush the passer. It is more valuable to have Lawson on the field on first and second downs, Nolan said, "so we can create a third down."

Lawson is among the 49ers' leaders in tackles, sacks and passes defensed. He had seven tackles against the Raiders, tipped a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Walt Harris, and he also blocked a punt early in the third quarter that turned the game in San Francisco's favor. Both of his sacks came in the Week 2 victory over St. Louis.

Like the defense itself, Lawson's role in it has evolved since the season began, and he feels coaches are making optimum use of his unique size, speed and skills. He has no problem with getting an occasional blow on third down, which diminishes his opportunities to pressure opposing passers.

"It makes me explosive on first and second down," Lawson said. "And then when it comes down to it, and they need me on third downs, I'm there. Obviously, what we're doing, we're doing for a reason. And in most cases and the most part, it's working, so why change it?"

Of course, the 49ers already have made changes to get the most out of their prized first-rounder at this point in his career. Nolan was worried that Lawson was getting worn down as an every-down player, which diminished his effectiveness on third down. After producing just four total tackles in losses to Philadelphia and Kansas City in Weeks 3-4, Lawson was back to his playmaking ways against the Raiders.

"I like to be seen as a utility player who you can use any way you want to get the job done," Lawson said. "It really doesn't matter to me whether we're in a 3-4 or 4-3. My skills don't change in either one. For the most part, I've always played linebacker. Being that so, one of my strengths is my speed allows me to be successful in covering the ground from sideline to sideline."

Lawson and Oliver are covering a lot of ground for the San Francisco defense, which makes you wonder where the 49ers - currently ranked 26th in the NFL in total defense - would be without them.

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