Fields out, Legree in, but where's Bryant?

The 49ers have made it through the 2006 season relatively healthy, but a rash of injuries to key players is hitting the team toward the end of the year as it scrambles to remain in the playoff hunt.

For the second time in a seven-day span, the 49ers lost a starting lineman after defensive tackle Ronnie Fields broke his right arm in practice Wednesday afternoon and was placed on the team's injured reserve list. Fields had started San Francisco's past nine games and been a factor in the team's defensive turnaround over the past two months.

Center Eric Heitmann broke his right leg in last Thursday's victory at Seattle and also was placed on injured reserve.

To replace Fields on the 53-man roster, the 49ers signed sixth-year veteran defensive lineman Lance Legree, who almost made the team coming out of training camp this summer.

Legree had nine tackles and one of San Francisco's two sacks during the preseason, but he was waived by the 49ers on Sept. 2 at the final roster cutdown as the team opted to keep Fields, Bryant Young, Anthony Adams, Isaac Sopoaga, Marques Douglas and Melvin Oliver as their six defensive linemen to begin the season.

Sopoaga is expected to replace Fields in the starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco's Monster Park. Anthony Adams, who started five games earlier this season in the defensive interior, is expected to return to the active roster to back up Sopoaga. Adams was inactive the past two games.

Legree, who played in 75 games during his first five NFL seasons with the New York Giants and New York Jets, was picked up later this season by the Giants and appeared in two games with them before being released late last month.

He has since been living in Long Island and working as a financial advisor for Wachovia Securities. The 49ers called him at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday after learning the extent of Fields' injury, and Legree was on a 4 a.m. flight to San Francisco, arriving in the Bay Area at 6 a.m. local time Thursday. Legree practiced with the 49ers on Thursday afternoon, but coach Mike Nolan said, "We'll see how Lance does during the week, whether he's up or not (for Sunday's game)."

About his quick turnaround from working in New York City's financial district one day and working on a football field on the other side of the continent the next, Legree said, "I understand at this stage of my career I might have to pick up and move."

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Fields, who played in only four games last season as a rookie and contributed little, displayed considerable development as a NFL sophomore and was one of San Francisco's more improved players this season.

He finished the season with 26 tackles and was learning how to clog up the middle well with his bulky 6-foot-2, 310-pound frame.

"I think I did good," Fields said. "I had a good year for my second season, it was a big year for me, to step up and help the defense, coming in and starting and all."

Said Nolan, "Ron's done well this year. I think he's a part of the future and he should just get better. As all young players do, he needs to get better and better all the time. But, in spurts, he has played well this year for the defensive line. Certainly, I've been encouraged by his performance more times than not."

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Starting split end Antonio Bryant was not at practice with the 49ers on Thursday. Nolan said Bryant was "excused from practice for personal reasons."

When asked if Bryant's absence was related to his Nov. 19 arrest, Nolan said, "It's just personal right now, all right? It's personal reasons."

Nolan was uncertain whether Bryant would be available to play Sunday against the Cardinals. "I'll know more tonight and tomorrow morning," he said. "I hope so. But we'll see."

Bryant has started 13 of San Francisco's 14 games this year but was not in the starting lineup in Week 14 against Green Bay because he was late for a team meeting the day before that game.

Bryant leads the 49ers with 733 receiving yards, and his 18.3 average per reception is the best on the team for any player with more than seven receptions.

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Tight end Eric Johnson, linebacker Derek Smith and offensive lineman Adam Snyder all participated in Thursday's practice for the second day in a row. Johnson has missed San Francisco's past three games with a knee sprain and Smith (hamstring) and Snyder (ankle/knee) each have missed the past two games.

All three players participated in full drills Wednesday and Smith did virtually the same Thursday. Johnson was held back some Thursday and Snyder went a bit lighter than he did the day before.

All three remained questionable for Sunday's game, but it appears all three have a good chance to be available to play, and Smith could return to the starting lineup.

"I'm optimistically questionable," Nolan said of their status.

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Nolan had his second discussion with rookie tight end Vernon Davis, who drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his touchdown celebration against the Seahawks last week.

Davis put his foot on a pylon in the end zone, which is considered an infraction. The 49ers were forced to kick off from the 15-yard line, and after a short kick and 28-yard return, the Seahawks took over at the 49ers' 36-yard line.

"I want him first to get better at scoring touchdowns, and then we'll get better at what we do with the ball," Nolan said. "We will get better. It might not be quite yet, because it happened a couple of times. We had one last week, also. We'll get an understanding here soon enough."

Nolan said he considers what Davis did to be conduct detrimental to the team. When asked if he planned any disciplinary action against Davis, Nolan answered, "Just chewing his tail."

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Running back Frank Gore said his position coach, Bishop Harris, warned him he would become the target of dirty play. And that's just what Gore said he received in the game against the Seahawks. Gore retaliated with a punch at cornerback Kelly Herndon in the first half, resulting in offsetting penalties.

Replays showed that a Seahawks defender committed a severe facemask infraction, grabbing Gore's facemask and twisting it around, but no penalty was called by the officials.

"It was a cheap hit," Gore said. "The whistle had blown and they still throw me on the ground. And then they pushed my head down. I was like, 'Come on, be professional.'"

Gore got to his feet and took a left-handed swipe at Herndon. Gore said he tried to clear the air before the next play. "I said, 'I'm sorry about that, let's just play football,'" Gore said. "He said the same thing."

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The 49ers continue to adjust their defensive game plan and personnel to put it in the best position to succeed each week.

The 49ers showed a new wrinkle on defense against the Seahawks, and they played with at least five defensive backs on almost every down.

"When it comes to dealing with coaches like Mike Holmgren and a couple of other guys, you better do something because he prides himself on educating his team," Nolan said. "You could keep it close and hope for the best or you could try to win the game. We changed what we did and I don't know how much it affected them."

The 49ers, in essence, had Keith Lewis play Manny Lawson's outside linebacker position to get an extra defensive back on the field. Mike Adams, a former starter, returned to his role at safety and had a strong game with five tackles and one pass defensed.

"Some people think that Keith Lewis should be a linebacker," Nolan said. "It just gave us the coverage ability we needed along with stopping the run. We felt that was best for the game plan."

The 49ers were very good in coverage. They recorded three sacks of Matt Hasselbeck, but each of those sacks was a result of the coverage down the field.

Lawson said he was not offended that he rarely got on the field. He still contributed one sack, one quarterback sack and two tackles in his limited playing time.

"What's most important is that we win," Lawson said. "And that's what we got. Whatever my role consists of, whatever helps the team get the win, that is what I want to do."

Lawson had a part on the fourth-down stop, when he demonstrated his quickness to come around from the left end to grab fullback Mack Strong around the ankles to help prevent him from making the first down.

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After a 10-tackle effort against the Seahawks, linebacker Brandon Moore has taken over the team's lead in tackles with 94 with two games remaining in the season. Moore passed his previous career high of 93 tackles last season.

Moore, who has started only nine of the team's 14 games, also leads the 49ers with a career-high 6.5 sacks.

Derek Smith, who might return to the lineup this weekend against the Cardinals, has led the team in tackles each of his five seasons with the club. Smith has 89 tackles, but nobody else is close to the two team leaders in that department.

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Punter Andy Lee is averaging 44.6 yards per punt. If he continues at this pace, it would be the highest gross average the 49ers have gotten from a punter since the club moved to windy Candlestick Point in 1971.

In fact, it would be the highest gross average by a 49er since Tommy Davis ended a five-year run with an average of 45.4 or better with a 45.8 average in 1965, when his home games were played at Kezar Stadium.

Frank Albert holds the team record of 48.2 on 31 punts in 1949. Since the 49ers entered the NFL in 1950, Larry Barnes' average of 47.1 on 19 punts in 1957 is the team standard. The best average for a San Francisco punter since the 49ers started playing their home games at Candlestick Point is Tommy Thompson's 44.1 average in 1996.

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Fourth-year wide receiver Arnaz Battle leads all San Francisco wideouts with 48 receptions for 575 yards this season, and he is making his catches count while becoming a dependable third-down target for Alex Smith.

Battle ranks ninth in the NFL with 22 third-down receptions for 260 yards and three TDs.

Battle currently is five receptions behind team leader Frank Gore, who is in position to become the first running back to lead the 49ers in receptions since 1988, when Roger Craig accomplished that feat for the fourth time in a five-year span.

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