Niners at the bye: Defense & special teams

Going down the San Francisco roster by position to analyze what's right and wrong with the 49ers on defense and special teams as they break for their bye weekend.

Bryant Young keeps plugging away in his 13th NFL season, and he has combined with Marques Douglas, Anthony Adams and surprising rookie Melvin Oliver to give the 49ers a strong front wall that has been capable against the run. Oliver has been a real find, and his emergence convinced coaches to change the team's base defensive scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3 set to get him on the field as one of San Francisco's best 11 defenders. Oliver became the first rookie defensive lineman in team history to score a touchdown when he returned a botched lateral for a score in Week 5. Second-year player Ronnie Fields, after making little impact early in the season, had a strong game in Week 6 during his first NFL start and may become a factor as the season wears on. Young, facing constant double teams, leads the team with three sacks so far to become the sixth active player in the NFL to record 80 career sacks.
WHAT'S WRONG: The 49ers had to change to a 4-3 set because they were getting worn down against the run by bigger, better offensive lines. Though Young has broken through a few times, the pass rush has been weak and sometimes practically nonexistent, which has adversely affected the entire defense. Adams is an overachiever that gets little push up front, and the 49ers haven't been getting much from their reserve Isaac Sopoaga.

Derek Smith is on course to lead the 49ers in tackles for the sixth consecutive season, and he has had several strong games stepping up against the run. Heralded rookie Manny Lawson had two sacks in his second NFL game, and he is an athletic presence who has been surprisingly strong in the coverage demands of the position after starring as a defensive end his final two seasons in college. Brandon Moore, though he lost a starting job when the 49ers switched their base scheme to a 4-3, has played well against the run and been one of San Francisco's best pass rushers. Rookie Parys Haralson also displayed some pass-rushing flash in the weeks leading up to the bye.
WHAT'S WRONG: The play at linebacker has not been consistent, and there have been a few games in which the unit has played poorly. Jeff Ulbrich, who appeared poised for a breakout season last year before a torn biceps put him on injured reserve in Week 5, has not hit his stride yet or made much of an impact. Haralson got a late start because of a foot injury in training camp. Lawson tended to wear down while playing practically every down in the early going, so the 49ers resorted to replacing him on third downs to keep him fresh, which doesn't seem like the best way to utilize a youngster expected to be one of San Francisco's best pass rushers.

Walt Harris has been so very right at cornerback this season that it makes one wonder how the 49ers lucked out in acquiring this smooth, 11-year veteran who has stepped in and immediately become a leader and playmaking force on a unit that sorely needed both. Harris' three-interception game in Week 5 only magnified his contribution to San Francisco's defense that began in Week 1 and has remained steady ever since. Left cornerback Shawntae Spencer and free safety Mike Adams also have had their moments on a unit that is better than 2005, if perhaps only marginally. Another newcomer, safety Chad Williams, also is playmaker who has contributed in both coverage and as a blitzer (two sacks in Week 2) in a situational role.
WHAT'S WRONG: While Harris has been a revelation, the play around him on this unit hasn't been nearly as strong. After a solid start, Spencer imploded in the Kansas City loss, and he must be more consistent to reach his full potential. Adams, one of San Francisco's best and most productive defenders in the early weeks, has had his struggles against both the run and pass since then and could be in danger of losing his starting job as the team seeks solutions after the bye. Coming back from a broken leg suffered last November, Tony Parrish's play has fallen off markedly from his Pro Bowl-quality performance of previous seasons. He lost his starting job in Week 6 to veteran Mark Roman after the two players had split time the first five games, an arrangement doesn't seem to be working out particularly well for either player.

Maurice Hicks has developed into one of the NFL's top kick returners, and the coverage teams have been consistently strong, just like they've been every season since Larry Mac Duff took over as special teams coordinator. Arnaz Battle had a 60-yard punt return in the season opener and would be leading the NFL in that category if he had enough returns to qualify. Keith Lewis has emerged as the new star of these units, and newcomers such as veteran T.J. Slaughter and rookies Michael Robinson and Marcus Hudson also have become regular contributors, with the latter recovering an onside kick in Week 1. Rookie Manny Lawson had a blocked punt in Week 5 that proved to be a game-turning play.
WHAT'S WRONG: After a stellar performance last year that earned him a multi-year deal with the team, kicker Joe Nedney missed four field-goal attempts in the first six games after missing just two of his 28 attempts all of last season. He hasn't always boomed his kickoffs like last year, either. Punter Andy Lee, while capable, has been only adequate in performance. Consistency remains his problem. Rookie Brandon Williams has yet to get untracked on kickoff returns or as the primary punt returner. There have been a few lapses in coverage, most notably when Dante Hall sliced through the punt team for a 60-yard touchdown return in the Week 4 loss at Kansas City.

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