Niners notebook: SF turning into Ravens West?

The 49ers defense hasn't been the problem through the first five games. The special teams are playing exceptionally well, especially punter Andy Lee, who ranks among the best in the league with a 50.1-yard average (43.8 net). But the 49ers are 2-3 in the bye week because of their offense, which ranks last in the NFL in several statistical categories.

Although coach Mike Nolan had planned to hold meetings during the bye week, the exercise took on significant urgency because of the team's inexplicable offensive ineptness.

Nolan has come under fire in the San Francisco area, especially after the team's boring 9-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The 49ers might have the same record as a year ago at this time, but that is not good enough. Improvement was expected, especially after the 49ers spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to upgrade the defense.

"I think that's because the expectations have changed," Nolan said of the criticism. "And they have for me, too. But that's OK. The expectations need to be different than they were.

"I don't want to put it on somebody else. I'm the head coach. But the reason the offense looks like it does is a lot deeper than just play-calling. It's the way we're setting up. It's the personnel we're using. And when we do use the personnel, we have to be successful and make the plays."

The biggest complaint directed at Nolan is that he appears to be trying to turn the 49ers into Ravens West.

In fact, the 49ers and Ravens locked up in a game that could be bottled and marketed as a cure for insomnia. Winning with defense and a vanilla offense might be considered an art form in some NFL markets, but Nolan knows in San Francisco "it's not good."

"I'll say what I said to the team," Nolan said. "By no means or any stretch of the imagination have I ever had the intention of making this look like Baltimore."

That is part of the reason Nolan decided to hold meetings for most of the first two days of the 49ers' bye week. He met with all of the team's position coaches, as well as the coordinators. He even spoke privately with several players. In addition, players met their position coaches and with the coordinators.

Running back Frank Gore said the meetings encouraged team-building.

"You got to trust that the boys on the field are going to play hard and do the right thing," he said. "You have to trust the offensive coordinator is doing the right thing; you have to trust that your coach is telling you the right thing."

At one point, Nolan handed out cards and asked every player to write one thing the team needs to do to improve. He said the responses ran the gamut, with one player suggesting the team's problems start at the top.

"In reading (the comments), the offensive guys were more open with their thoughts because they're feeling more of it," Nolan said. "The defensive guys (wrote) we need to get more turnovers, we need to do this and that. It was all about themselves."

The 49ers rank last in the NFL in total offense, averaging just 203.2 yards a game. The league-leading Dallas Cowboys, by contrast, average 429.6 yards.

Nolan said the meetings were productive. Over the course of the two days, he said there were several things identified as being the to blame for the team's last-ranked offense. Nolan did not get into specifics, but he did say the 49ers have examined how they are using their personnel.

"We made headway in talking about the personnel and the use of the personnel," Nolan said. "And a lot of that goes into the designing of plays and stuff like that. ... I think we have the talent and the players to be better than we are. How much better? We'll see."

One thing that could help the 49ers is the return of three offensive starters.

The offense began to show signs of coming around Sept. 23 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, tight end Vernon Davis sustained a knee injury that knocked him out of the next two games. Moreover, quarterback Alex Smith played only three snaps before sustaining a separated right shoulder in the 49ers' next game.

Smith's rehabilitation appears to be going well. He has already started throwing with some zip. He hopes to return for the Oct. 21 game against the New York Giants. Davis might be back for that game, too. Left tackle Jonas Jennings is back with the team after missing one game due to personal reasons.

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The 49ers held meetings Monday and Tuesday and finished their bye week schedule with practiced Wednesday and Thursday. The players will now be given a three-day weekend, while the coaches will report to work on Friday.

"The bye week comes at a good time," Nolan said. "Naturally, we have things to work on, but it also gives our team an opportunity to heal up and get healthy. We have five weeks underneath our belts at 2-3. We are not where we want to be, but we are only one game out of first. We take the good with the bad."

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Jennings was excused from practice and the game Sunday against the Ravens for personal reasons. He returned to the team Monday but did not shed any light on the reason for his absence.

"When you have to handle other things outside of football, then you know how important football is and how much it means to you," Jennings said.

Nolan said Jennings' leave of absence was mutually agreed upon. He said it was not for any disciplinary reasons, and that it had been building for a while. Nolan said Jennings had to get his "head in the right place."

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Offensive line coach George Warhop took exception last week to questions about the play of the 49ers' line. He suggested that the media have been too hard on the line.

"What happens with you guys is if it doesn't have success, the line's not blocking," he said. "I suggest you watch it and study it and look at it for what it is and make an educated look at what's going on. There are other teams in the league that run the ball that are also having a hard time because of the same issues."

Warhop cited the Chiefs, Chargers and Rams as teams, along with the 49ers, that have struggled to gain consistency in the run game.

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Nolan had some fun with a recent ESPN report that quoted an unnamed source that QB Alex Smith would likely undergo season-ending surgery after sustaining a separated throwing shoulder on Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. Within a few days of the report, Smith was throwing a football.

"It's amazing what surgery can do in one day," Nolan quipped.

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Here's the number that tells you San Francisco's defense has been on the field way too often and the offense hasn't been there enough: 25:38

That's the league-low average time of possession for the 49ers through five games this season.

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Nolan did not have an answer when asked repeatedly why sixth-year WR Ashley Lelie, who signed a two-year, $4.3 million contract in the offseason, has not been given an opportunity to play. Lelie has taken part in just 10 offensive snaps.

"Good question," Nolan answered repeatedly.

When individual meetings were held this week, the low-key Lelie said he had an opportunity to ask questions and get some answers.

"I got some things off my chest." He said. "When my opportunity comes, I'm going to be ready."

But when asked if he will be moving into a more active role, Lelie opted not to say. He said if he were to have a bigger role, he would not want to give away the plans and give the Giants a reason to game-plan for him when the clubs meet on Oct. 21.

The 49ers re-signed Bryan Gilmore prior to last week's game to take the spot of former No. 3 wideout Taylor Jacobs, who was released. Gilmore jumped over Lelie in the pecking order behind starters Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Also, the 49ers would like to get rookie Jason Hill onto the field, and the team signed free agent LeRon McCoy this week.

--- WR LeRon McCoy signed with the 49ers as a free agent after missing all of last season with a thumb injury. The Cardinals cut McCoy at the end of training camp. He worked out for the 49ers last month. As a rookie with the Cardinals in 2005, McCoy caught 18 passes for 191 yards and a TD.
--- OL Patrick Estes, whom the 49ers re-signed last week and played as a second tight end, was waived Tuesday to make room for receiver LeRon McCoy. Estes does not have practice-squad eligibility.
--- CB Nate Clements has made quite an impression with his tackling ability. Through five games, Clements has 28 tackles, and 27 of them have been solo.
--- WR Bryan Gilmore, whom the 49ers re-signed last week, immediately stepped onto the field as the team's No. 3 wideout. Gilmore caught one pass for 42 yards, the 49ers' biggest pass play of the season.
--- LB Patrick Willis leads the 49ers with 67 tackles, according to the coaches' film review. Willis, who was chosen with the No. 11 overall draft pick, has 41 solo tackles. Willis has two tackles for loss, three passes defensed and a forced fumble.

--- QB Alex Smith started throwing passes a week after sustaining a Grade III separation to his throwing shoulder. Smith likely will be listed as questionable next week for the 49ers' game against the Giants on Oct. 21.
--- TE Vernon Davis sustained a partially torn MCL in his right knee Sept. 23. He hopes to be available to return to the lineup when the 49ers play the Giants on Oct. 21.
--- WR Jason Hill, a rookie who was expected to start seeing more practice time, is likely to be recovered from his left hamstring strain for the 49ers' next game. He has not been active for a game this season. His absence the first two games was a result of coach's decision. The past three games the hamstring has been the issue.
--- TE Billy Bajema, the team's blocking tight end, did not play Sunday against the Ravens due to an ankle sprain. He is expected to be ready to play against the Giants on Oct. 21.
--- S Michael Lewis is expected to be OK to play against the Giants after sustaining an Achilles strain on Sunday against the Ravens. He returned to action.
--- S Keith Lewis might not be available for the 49ers' next game due to a left hamstring strain that forced him out of Sunday's game against the Ravens.

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