Loss of Lawson tough for 49ers to overcome

Manny Lawson was a piece. A big piece of what the 49ers had going on this season with their maturing 3-4 defense that has carried the team to a 2-0 start. Now he's gone, out for the season with a torn ligament in his left knee, leaving San Francisco scrambling to replace one of the most versatile playmakers in that scheme.

How big a hit is the loss of Lawson? Coach Mike Nolan takes the pragmatic approach.

"Manny had done a nice job the first two games and was playing well," Nolan said. "It's a disappointment that he got injured, but at the same time it's a team that wins games, not just an individual."

But as the 49ers built their defense the past two years, they did it with Lawson's unique size and set of skills in mind. He's a dynamic presence as a 3-4 strong-side linebacker, and while Nolan talks about a team replacing only one individual, the guys who are in line to fill the that spot realize what big cleats they have to fill.

"Manny's a true athlete, and Manny is his own individual person," said Hannibal Navies, the ninth-year veteran who currently is listed behind Lawson on San Francisco's depth chart. "He's so fast and can do so many things. That's what makes him special. He's definitely going to be missed out on that field, his speed and agility. But we have a lot of talent on this team that also can get things done. I don't expect (coaches) to put somebody out there and not pick up where (Lawson) left off."

And to that end, step right up Mr. Navies.

With 49 career starts, including three in his six games with the 49ers last year after joining the team in November, Navies has both the proven NFL experience and versatility necessary to play the position, though he lacks Lawson's speed, vision and coverage ability.

As Navies explains, there are heavy demands on the individual who plays this role in a 3-4 scheme: "You have to be able to do a lot of different things," he said. "You have to be able to cover, you have to be able to drop into zone and read the quarterback. You have to be able to hold the point, you have to be able to play the run. It entails a lot of things as an outside backer. So it's a position where you have to be able to adjust your style to a lot of different things."

Nolan didn't come close to naming Navies as the starter to replace Lawson for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, but the coach did say, "Obviously, it's time for the backups to get an opportunity to step up and do something. Whoever that might be that we fill in there. We have four outside linebackers, so obviously it will come from one of the other two backups. I think our guys will rally around the position and we'll be fine."

But it's not as obvious as Nolan is letting on.

The 49ers obviously will be making personnel changes to fill the void left by Lawson's injury, but along with that will come scheme changes, also. While the 3-4 isn't going anywhere, there could be elemental changes in the team's base defensive set depending on who is in the game.

Lawson had evolved into a three-down player – he was one of the select San Francisco defenders who was on the field virtually every play – but the starter who replaces him almost certainly won't be.

"It could come down to personnel change," said Brandon Moore, San Francisco's 2006 leader in tackles and sacks who started at both left outside linebacker and right inside linebacker last season when the 49ers ran a base 4-3 set. "It could come down to scheme change. It could come down to a number of different things. Last year, we put a defensive lineman in there. There's really no telling right now."

When the 49ers realized last summer they didn't have the personnel to adequately stop the run using a base 3-4 system, they switched to a 4-3 and inserted rookie defensive lineman Melvin Oliver into the starting lineup at right end. That's not an option this year, because Oliver is spending the season on injured reserve after tearing knee ligaments during the spring.

But it would be no surprise to see the 49ers going back to more 4-3 sets, where guys such as Tully Banta-Cain, Parys Haralson and rookie Ray McDonald could line up on the right side as a rush end, particularly since the edge roles in the two systems are so interchangeable.

"We have depth at the position," Nolan said. "I will say that one of the beauties of the 3-4 is if you have a number of injuries at the linebacker position, you can go to the 4-3 if it's necessary. It would be an easy transition if we had to. Every game's a new game. It might be part of the scheme."

Another option is to try Haralson, who has been backing up Banta-Cain on the right side, in place of Lawson in the 3-4 set. Haralson has good athleticism, but his coverage skills are in question after he missed most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.

But not if you ask him.

"I can do it," Haralson said. "I've been here working hard in the offseason, working on drops, working on pass rush and being able to read plays, which is what you have to do. I feel a lot more comfortable out there than last year. If the opportunity comes my way, I'm prepared for it."

The 49ers have two more days to prepare a still-developing defense – now missing one of its key parts – for Sunday's battle of unbeatens against the Steelers, who enter the game with the NFL's seventh-ranked offense.

"Everybody has to be ready at this point," Navies said. "That's the power and strength of a football team is when people get hurt, who can step up. Losing Manny was a big blow to us, but we will overcome."


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