49ers' credibility at stake?

The 49ers appear to be nearing a crisis point - the first such stage of coach Mike Nolan's 1½-year tenure. Coming off the worst first half in club history, the 49ers are not just playing a football game Sunday against the Vikings at Monster Park. In many ways, the organization's credibility is at stake. If the 49ers ever needed a bounce-back game, this is it.

"We've had three games where we've gotten blown out of the water," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "I'd hope that would be a wake-up call. You'd think it would've happened after the first one, but we didn't get it ... the second one, we didn't get it. And now with the third one, I hope everyone is aware that this can't continue."

Quarterback Alex Smith said the team has not lost faith that it is on the right path.

"I think without question, we're going to rally up," Smith said. "We understand what happened in Chicago is not a true reflection of where we're at. I don't' think that's the direction we're heading. I sit in the offensive meeting room and I see us continue to get better as unit. We're making strides in the right direction."

But things have not gotten markedly better since Nolan took over as head coach. In fact, in some ways, things have gotten worse. Earlier this season, the 49ers lost to the Chiefs 41-0 - the worst shutout loss in team history. On Sunday, they fell behind the Bears 41-0 at halftime, the most points the club has ever allowed in a half of football.

The 49ers eventually lost to the Bears 41-10. Two weeks ago, the 49ers lost to the Chargers 48-19, so a trend is obviously developing. It makes people - on the outside, anyway - wonder if things are getting better.

"Obviously, the games, with the way they've been, and the scores, I will be the first to say there's no reflection in those games of what's been changed in this building," Nolan said. "But there's been a tremendous amount of things that have been a lot better in the surrounding cast. And if you don't get that right first, then it's a quick fix and it's all superficial.

"From my standpoint, I'm confident in the things we've gotten done. Do I enjoy 41-10, 48-19, 41-0? Not a lick. Should a fan enjoy that? No. Should a fan be patient? If they are, they should be just like me, from a patience standpoint, 'What are we going to do to make it right?' If I'm a fan I might say, 'I need to scream a little louder when somebody else has their offense on the field, I'm going to sound like Kansas City, maybe.'"

There appear to be no uncertainty in the 49ers' locker room. Many of the players know what's going on with the organization. The 49ers used the first two offseasons of Nolan's regime to bulk up the offense and create a supporting cast around Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.

Meanwhile, the defensive upgrades will have to wait until this offseason when the 49ers have a lot of salary-cap room and at least seven picks in the first four rounds of the draft.

"I think that's the one thing we're fortunate to have - good character guys who aren't jumping off the ship. I think everybody for the most part's on board and willing to work. That's the only solution I see for turning it around," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said.

Still, it's clear that people are getting frustrated in the results. The 49ers are 2-5 entering this week's game against the Vikings (4-3). Luckily, they play a home game after struggling so badly on the road.

"We're better than we're showing," Ulbrich said. "Until we do it, I really have no ground to stand on. Every facet - leadership needs to be improved, execution needs to be improved, communication, everything."

The 49ers have a young team, and many of the veteran players are not considered vocal leaders who can articulate what needs to be said at the right time with a commanding presence. The 49ers' game against the Bears spiraled out of control, with the Bears scoring 28 points in the first half after turnovers.

"I don't know if leadership keeps the ball security down," Nolan said. "But every good team certainly has a lot of leaders on the team that respond positively to adverse situations."

In the aftermath of the 49ers' loss, Nolan said he thought the 49ers lacked the maturity that's necessary to put one mistake behind them. So one error led to another, and the rout was on.

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Donald Strickland participated in his first practice with the 49ers on Wednesday, and it wasn't odd that he felt just a little bit at home.

The San Francisco native has a special connection to the aura surrounding the team that he grew up watching and rooting for as a child.

Strickland remembers running around the grounds near Monster Park as a youth, the same area in which he has trained during the offseason since entering the NFL as a third-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2003. His parents live in San Francisco's Bayview District, which sits adjustment to the 49ers' home stadium.

Strickland could be playing in that stadium for the first time Sunday, particularly after backup safety Chad Williams pulled up lame in practice Wednesday with a hamstring injury that left him questionable to play this week against the Vikings.

Strickland said he is eager to strengthen one of the NFL's worst passing defenses and help the team return to the standards of his youth.

"I definitely want to get things going in the right direction from what I grew up on," Strickland said. "I've witnessed all the history and always envisioned myself playing for them someday. So I've kind of got a lot of passion behind it."

Strickland, who can play both safety and cornerback, started 12 games in two seasons with the Colts and played with the Philadelphia Eagles last year before a hamstring injury ended his season. The 49ers are hoping he can contribute immediately at safety, a position where San Francisco has struggled all season.

"He's working in there right now," Nolan said. "He's a very physical, very assertive player who's around the ball. Right now, I'm just trying to find out about him and work him in there because he's got to get accustomed to language and things. I don't know if it will be as soon as this week, but it could be."

Strickland is the first native San Franciscan to play for the team since running back Derek Loville, who played for the 49ers from 1994 to 1996.

Other notable native San Franciscans who played for the 49ers are Hall of Famers Bob St. Clair and O.J. Simpson.

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Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who played all 16 games last season, was declared inactive against the Bears. Nolan said the team will have competition during the week at defensive line that will determine which players suit up.

Like several players on San Francisco's defense, Sopoaga has underachieved this season. The third-year veteran is one of the team's biggest and strongest players, but he has not been able to make much impact in the defensive interior despite his physical attributes.

"We practiced (Sopoaga) and Damane Duckett during the week and informed them that one would be done and one would be up, based on practice," Nolan said. "Duckett was up."

When asked if that would be the way it works for the rest of the season, Nolan said, "They'll be working together, but there will be some other defensive linemen in that frame that could be up, could be down."

Duckett saw some time on defense at Chicago but did not record any tackles.

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