Niners notebook: Problems are widespread

The 49ers are a mess, having lost seven consecutive games after beginning the season with high hopes -- and back-to-back victories. As the organization heads into Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams, the problems are widespread. The 49ers own the league's worst offense, which has averaged just 218.6 yards per game and 11.6 points - both league lows.

Quarterback Alex Smith and offensive coordinator Jim Hostler have come under the most fire for the 49ers' offensive woes. Smith has been particularly ineffective since returning from a grade-III right shoulder separation.

It has opened the possibility that the 49ers will seek to find an insurance policy this offseason to guard against the possibility that Smith might not be their long-term answer at quarterback. Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.

"Right now, we're just taking the games one at a time," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "From an expectation standpoint, even our team goals. We've got St. Louis this week, and he's our quarterback this week. We just take them one at a time."

Smith is completing 46 percent of his passes since returning to the lineup. He has experienced obvious problems with his throwing accuracy, but Nolan maintained for several weeks that his problems were not a result of his shoulder issues.

"Yes, he is fine. He might have some soreness," Nolan said of Smith. "I'll agree something is wrong. He is not playing well, but I would not put it on his shoulder."

But, finally, Smith, tired of taking all the blame without an explanation being given for his problems, said, "It's really been hard because to continue to have it get reported that you're 100 percent, and that's not really the case. That's been frustrating as well."

Nolan did not seem pleased when he heard Smith admitted his shoulder - and forearm - has been bothering him.

"I think that it would be a good idea if he said that to me before he said that (to the media)," Nolan said. "The communication lines, you know, aren't as good as I thought."

Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer took the reps with the first-team offense in practice Wednesday. It was unclear whether Smith would make the start Sunday against the Rams.

And then there is the aspect of the offensive play-calling. Hostler has many critics for his handling of his duties since taking over for Norv Turner.

Even tight end Vernon Davis and Nolan weighed in about shortcomings in the offensive plan. Davis complained during and after the game about his lack of involvement in the 49ers' 24-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night. Davis, who had caught 13 passes for 148 yards in the two previous games, did not see a pass come his way until the middle of the fourth quarter.

"We didn't attack the way we should've," Davis said. "I was on the back side protecting a lot. They didn't put me down the field, for some reason."

Nolan admitted that Davis should have been a major part of the team's offense.

"Vernon is a playmaker for us and we need to utilize him, like I've said for awhile now," Nolan said. "And this game we regressed in that respect.

"But I'm not going to deny the fact, because it's accurate in saying Vernon Davis is a player with the ball in his hand. In the passing game, when he has the ball in his hands, he's a major threat. That was a disappointment that we didn't utilize him more."

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Smith has reason to doubt himself after the past three games, in which he has struggled mightily. Nolan said he believes Smith is battling issues of confidence.

"Is his confidence maybe shaken a little bit? It could be, but I think the offense, in general, is," Nolan said. "I think that it challenges your confidence and only the strong will survive through that.

"If you're a quarterback in the NFL, your confidence is going to be challenged, I don't care if you're Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Alex Smith, it's going to be a challenge at times."

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Nolan received a lot of praise for the job he did with the 49ers in his first two seasons. He inherited a team that went 2-14. It was a roster in shambles in 2004.

After finishing with records of 4-12 and 7-9 in his first two seasons, the 49ers have taken a major step backward. The club has a seven-game losing streak, tied for the longest Nolan has endured with the 49ers. San Francisco had a seven-game losing streak before winning its final two games in Nolan's debut season of 2005.

"The disappointment for me is that we have good players and are better than we were two years ago. We are better than we were last year from a personnel standpoint," Nolan said. "I reflect and understand your and the fan's frustrations on offense. It is very frustrating because the expectation is that we should perform better on the offensive side of the ball. It would be easy to say it was one area, but it's not. It is collective and that has been the biggest disappointment for me."

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Smith clearly has some mechanical issues, but one big question is whether the 49ers' coaching staff can identify and correct the technical part of Smith's game that is deficient. That was never a question last season when Turner was their offensive coordinator.

The 49ers do not have that kind of experience on Smith's side this season. Hostler and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti both played defensive back at Indiana (Pa.), an NCAA Division II school.

Hostler and Cignetti have a combined five years of experience coaching quarterbacks in the NFL. Hostler spent one season as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL, with the New York Jets in 2003 before taking that same role with the 49ers in 2005. Cignetti spent two seasons as quarterbacks coach with the New Orleans Saints before spending the past five seasons as offensive coordinator at Fresno State and North Carolina.

Nolan, whose background is primarily on the defensive side, does not delve much into offense. It seems as if he is powerless to help the 49ers dig out of their numerous and sundry problems.

However, he said he is confident Hostler and Cignetti are capable of detecting and correcting Smith's technical flaws.

"Some of your greatest dancers and your greatest musicians aren't taught by the greatest musicians and the greatest dancers," Nolan said. "A lot of times they're taught by people who never did it."

Nolan said the 49ers spend the first 15 minutes of every practice working on fundamentals and mechanics with their position coaches. He added that a lot of teams use only five minutes on individual techniques.

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Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who is in the final year of his contract, will likely get the start at that position over the next four games as Aubrayo Franklin will miss time with a calf injury. Sopoaga will split time with Ronald Fields in Franklin's absence.

With less depth at nose tackle, it might be that the 49ers will want to play more 4-3. Rookie Ray McDonald, who was inactive for Monday's game after the club signed outside linebacker/defensive end Roderick Green to the active roster, could see some time, as well as Atiyyah Ellison, who has yet to suit up after being signed off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before the start of the regular season.

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--- OLB Roderick Green saw limited action in his first game with the 49ers after being signed to help the club bolster its pass rush. Green recorded 4.5 sacks for the 49ers last season in just nine games before the 49ers released him in training camp.
--- RB Michael Robinson did not get one snap from scrimmage after he rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries the previous game as a fill-in for Frank Gore. Maurice Hicks took over as the 49ers' third-down back.
--- OT Patrick Estes returned to the 49ers to take a roster spot after Jonas Jennings and Justin Smiley were placed on injured reserve. Estes did not suit up for the game Monday night.
--- P Andy Lee is on pace to have one of the best punting seasons in NFL history. Not only is Lee averaging 50.0 yards on a league-high 60 punts, his net average of 44.1 is more than four yards better than the best net average in league history. The Raiders' Shane Lechler leads the league with a 44.5 net average. No punter in league history has averaged more than 40 yards net over an entire season.
--- LB Patrick Willis had a season-low five tackles in the 49ers' 24-0 loss to the Seahawks Monday night. Still, Willis leads the 49ers with 114 tackles on the season. He is playing with a cast on his right hand to protect a small fracture in his hand.
--- LB Jeff Ulbrich made a season-high 10 tackles on Monday against the Seahawks. Ulbrich is seeing more action in the 49ers' sub package on defense after losing his starting job in the middle of last season.

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