Niners notebook: Changes coming in secondary?

The 49ers, searching for ways to improve a pass defense ranked 25th in the NFL, have decided to pursue veteran free agent Troy Vincent, whom the Bills released Thursday. The 49ers are believed to view Vincent as a free safety who can help the team's nickel defense.

The 49ers are yielding an average of 224.0 yards per game. Last week, the Raiders, who entered the game averaging just 70.3 yards passing a game, rolled up 216 passing yards on the 49ers.

Coming off a 34-20 victory over the Raiders, the 49ers are preparing to face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Monster Park. Although the 49ers (2-3) won handily over the Raiders, they were not satisfied with their pass defense.

Safety Mike Adams accepted his share of the blame for some communication mix-ups against Oakland.

"Part of that was on me and the mental errors I made," Adams said. "I have to get better at communication back there. If I don't communicate well - if it's not loud enough or fast enough - it's on me.

"This challenge is more with ourselves. We have to put this win behind us and move forward and win again. We have to learn to win back-to-back games. It has everything to do with us. We won. Now, are we going to level off again or are we going to keep going?"

The 49ers believe Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, can bring a lot of leadership to the team's secondary. The 49ers are prepared to offer Vincent a two-year contract, but the club expects strong competition for his services.

The 49ers are happy with the play of starting cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Walt Harris, especially after Harris recorded three interceptions against the Raiders. The team's third cornerback is Sammy Davis, whom the club acquired in an offseason trade with the Chargers.

Veteran Tony Parrish is splitting time with Mark Roman at strong safety, while Adams is handling all the responsibilities at free safety.

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If it weren't for those four troublesome fumbles, running back Frank Gore would be the 49ers' most valuable player through the first five games of the season. He might still be the team's best player, even with those four turnovers.

Certainly, Gore is the team's most important player.

The 49ers enter their game against the Chargers as heavy underdogs. Really, their only chance at winning is if Gore continues to run the ball effectively, which would help the 49ers control the clock and take the pressure off quarterback Alex Smith.

Gore enters the weekend tied with the Rams' Steven Jackson for the NFL lead with 465 rushing yards. Gore has a 4.6-yard average. He has also caught 19 passes for 167 yards.

"Frank is a guy that I've got a lot of confidence in," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It's unfortunate that he's fumbled the ball. That bothers me, and it bothers him. I'm glad to see it bothers him, because he works on (correcting) it."

Gore is coming off a career-high 134-yard rushing performance in a 34-20 victory over the Raiders, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

"It tells us we're on the right track," 49ers center Eric Heitmann said. "We're many steps away from being where we want to be, and we got aspirations for improving in all areas, but it lets us know we are making progress."

The 49ers used a third-round pick a year ago to select Gore, who was plagued by injuries throughout his career at the University of Miami (Fla.). He led the 49ers in rushing last season as a rookie with 608 yards despite starting just one game.

In the exhibition season, when Nolan made the decision that Gore would be the starter over Kevan Barlow, the team traded Barlow to the Jets for a fourth-round draft pick.

The move has worked out wonderfully for the 49ers, who expect to use a lot of next year's draft to improve on defense. Meanwhile, the 49ers feel the running back position is in good hands with Gore as the featured back.

"We have a lot of faith him in him," Smith said. "He's a guy who runs for tough yards. It's not a gimmicky thing. This is running between the tackles, off-tackle, he catches the ball well and blocks well.

"He does everything and continues to run and get tough yards. See how many tackles he ends up breaking. It always amazes me. It looks like a one or two yard gain, then all of a sudden he's scrambling on the ground for another three or four yards."

The 49ers have talked about signing Gore to a contract extension, but both sides decided it would be better to see if Gore can remain healthy for the entire season before determining his value to the club.

When Gore was in college, he was a top Miami recruit. While he struggled with injuries, such players as Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee excelled and went on to rich NFL contracts. Gore is trying to elevate himself to the status he enjoyed as one of the nation's top prep players.

"There's nothing better than having a football player who's good, who has something to prove, as opposed to a football player who thinks he has arrived," Nolan said. "He may be very talented, he thinks he's arrived before he has, and you've usually got a bust. Frank's far from that."

Gore is also a team player, who was brought to tears last season when he saw many of his teammates taking losses in stride. The 49ers finished last season with a 4-12 record, and many of those players are no longer with the club.

So, it's not all about personal glory for Gore.

"I'd be happy if we could lead the league in rushing as an offense because of what it would do for this team," Gore said. "And if we keep playing the way we did, we have a shot. But it's a long season."

Said Smith, "He's got that hunger inside. But he wants to earn the respect of his teammates and it shows in his play and in running. His play is very selfless. I don't think he really worries about stats. He does what he's supposed to do. He's a great guy to have in the huddle."

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Perhaps the most improved unit on the 49ers is their offensive line. The 49ers have depth this season, unlike a year ago when they had difficulty overcoming some injuries on the line.

Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge have played well in reserve roles thus far when left guard Larry Allen and left tackle Jonas Jennings have gone down with injuries. Allen has not played since the sixth play of the season because of a left knee injury, and Jennings has missed all or parts of three games with ankle and hand injuries.

Center Eric Heitmann said offensive line coach George Warhop is a demanding coach who strives for perfection.

"You can knock a guy to the ground, but if you didn't take the right footwork, he'll make sure it's corrected," Heitmann said.

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Rookie Parys Haralson has played so many different spots, he's not even sure what he plays anymore.

Haralson opened camp as an outside linebacker. Then, he missed the final three exhibition games and the regular-season opener with a foot strain. Upon his return, he has played mostly defensive end but is still learning the linebacker position.

When asked what position he is now playing, Haralson responded, "I don't know. I play everywhere."

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PLAYER NOTES
--- DL Bryant Young leads the 49ers with three sacks through the first five games. He ranks third in 49ers history with 80.5 career sacks, a figure that places him sixth among active players in the NFL.
--- FS Mike Adams ranks second on the team with 33 tackles. His play through the first five games has been a bit unsteady. The 49ers like Adams and earlier this season offered him a contract extension for "good backup money," which he turned down.
--- RB Maurice Hicks has lost his backup job to rookie Michael Robinson. Hicks has carried just once this season, but he has also caught seven passes for 84 yards, including a 33-yard TD. Hicks ranks first in the NFC and fifth in the league with a 27.0 average on kickoff returns.
--- WR Brandon Williams, whom the 49ers chose in the third round, has averaged 6.2 yards on five punt returns in three games. Williams has seen just one play of action as a receiver on offense and has not caught a pass.
--- OL Adam Snyder has to be ready to play any of a number of positions on the 49ers' offensive line. He has started three games at left guard in place of Larry Allen, and once at left tackle for Jonas Jennings. With both Allen and Jennings doubtful, Snyder has to be ready to start at either spot.
--- LG Larry Allen (left knee) practiced Friday for the third consecutive day, but he is still listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. It's looking as if the 49ers will give Allen an additional two weeks of rest so that he can be ready for the Oct. 29 game against the Bears after the bye.
--- LB Derek Smith, the team's leader with 44 tackles, returned to practice Thursday after missing a day with a strained hip flexor. Smith is listed as probable and is expected to start against the Chargers.
--- FB Moran Norris appears to have taken over as the starter after a strong showing against the Raiders. Norris was a dominating blocker, and he caught a 7-yard pass on a third-and-1 play. Still, the 49ers say their decision on whether to start Norris or Chris Hetherington is contingent on which player best fits their game plan on a week-to-week basis.


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