Eye problems seeing Smith's play slipping

Linebacker Derek Smith leads the 49ers with 60 tackles through the first seven games of the season, but coach Mike Nolan says a bothersome eye condition has prevented Smith from playing as well as he did last year, and that's something that has been easy to see in recent weeks as the 10th-year veteran's performance steadily regressed.

Smith has been bothered all season by a muscle strain in his left eye that limits the movement of his eyeball up and to the left. The condition has caused much discomfort, including bouts of dizziness.

Smith decided against undergoing surgery because it would have brought an end to his season. He would have to rest for one to two months, anyway, before undergoing season-ending surgery. The condition would likely require four months' rest - not playing football - to get better on its own.

Smith has struggled in most aspects of his game, as he tries to press on despite the eye condition. But his difficulties with his eyesight are undoubtedly to blame for his struggles on the field, Nolan said.

"I would have to say it has something to do with it," Nolan said. "The eyes are the most important thing to playing every sport - they really are - and his vision has been bothered.

"Every player, the better their peripheral vision, the better they are able to play. A racecar driver can't just see straight down the track, you have to see those guys coming up behind you and around you. Football is very much the same way with all the different angles. Vision is important."

Smith had a career-high 106 solo tackles last season, as he led the 49ers in total tackles (160) for the fifth time in his five seasons with the club. The 49ers re-signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract in the offseason that included a $6 million signing bonus.

Smith earned that deal - and a place in the 49ers' future plans at linebacker - with stellar play last year and the same kind of steady performance since joining the team as a free agent in 2001. Smith has recorded 865 tackles in 86 games with the 49ers - all of them starts - an average of 10.1 tackles per game.

But there have been more missed tackles than usual this year, and Smith has taken bad angles when he seemingly has an open shot at a ball-carrier in the backfield. Smith doesn't like talking about the problem - or his decline in play - but he can't deny the affect it is having on him.

"There's probably been a few times it has slowed me down," Smith said. "But I feel I'm getting used to it."

Nolan said Smith's vision has been a topic of discussion within the organization. He said he is pressing the issue but "there's not much we can do." The condition may not get worse, but it's also unlikely to get better until Smith stops playing football for a few months.

"I'm concerned about his well-being," Nolan said. "I'm concerned about him, not only on the field but off the field."

Meanwhile, Smith continues to start at a key position for a defense that has sagged to 31st in the NFL rankings.

--- RB/KR Maurice Hicks is listed as questionable after sitting out two practices due to a concussion. If Hicks is unable to return kickoffs, rookies Michael Robinson and Brandon Williams will both likely see time in his place.
--- S Chad Williams is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Vikings with a quadriceps contusion that he sustained during practice Wednesday.
--- RB Frank Gore has touched the ball just 29 times combined in the past two games after averaging 24.2 touches in the 49ers' first five games. The 49ers have had to change gears because they got behind in their games against the Chargers and Bears.
--- OL Adam Snyder is expected to work into the lineup more this week in place of starting RT Kwame Harris, and he is expected to assume the starting job for the Nov. 12 game against the Lions.
--- TE Vernon Davis did some limited work on the practice field this week but will not play Sunday against the Vikings. It will be the fifth game he's missed since sustaining a broken right leg Sept. 24 against the Eagles. There is a chance he could return to action Nov. 12 at the Lions.

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