Niners notebook: Lewis a keeper and a leader

Overlooked somewhat in all the Patrick Willis hullabaloo is another San Francisco defender who's also having an outstanding season stopping opponents with the football. Michael Lewis hasn't just lived up to his reputation as a rock-'em, sock'-em strong safety, he also has held up in coverage and become a playmaker when opponents put the football in the air.

Lewis, Philadelphia's second-round draft pick in 2002, had developed into a Pro Bowl starter by his third season with the Eagles. But there was talk surrounding Lewis that he lost his starting job with Philadelphia last year and the Eagles allowed him to leave via free agency because he had lost a step and struggled in coverage.

That was the rap on Lewis when the 49ers signed him to a six-year, $30 million deal in March. But he has not been the liability in coverage some suspected when he was acquired. To the contrary, he is third on the team with two interceptions and also third with six passes defensed.

"At safety, that's always going to be one of the things," Lewis said. "Can he cover? Is he and in-the-box safety?
"I know what type of player I am. I try to go out there and compete with the best. Of course there's going to be naysayers and they're going to have their doubts and say different things about you. But week in and week out I just want to go out and prove that I belong."

Lewis has more than proven he belongs. He has been one of the most productive players on the team, one of the catalysts of a defense that has had to do its best to carry the team.

The 49ers have received mixed results from their class of 2007 free agents, but Lewis has played to positive reviews. And he has the numbers to back it up.

According to league statistics, Lewis leads all NFL defensive backs with 81 tackles. In fact, he leads all NFL players who don't play linebacker in tackles. The 49ers, in their coaches' review of game films, have him with 107 tackles - second on the team to rookie phenom Willis, who has 173 according to the 49ers and leads the NFL with 128 according to the league's statistics.

On a team that has had several disappointments this year, Lewis has proven to be one of San Francisco's better offseason investments.

"He's one of the (defenders) in particular who's had a very good year for us," coach Mike Nolan said. "Michael's a very intelligent player, he's got good size and strength, he plays the run real well and he's even made some plays (in coverage). I think he'll be a good 49er for a number of years."

San Francisco's 3-4 defensive system has been a good fit for Lewis' skills and has allowed him to thrive near the line of scrimmage. Three quarters of the way into his first season with the team, Lewis is quickly establishing himself as one of the new leaders on the 49ers' revamped defense.

"I feel like I'm one of the best safeties in the league, and the 49ers felt the same way or else they wouldn't have signed me," Lewis said. "I've improved since coming here and that's a credit to the coaches who work with me and put me in a position where I can make plays. You have to lead by example on the field and that's what I try to do as well."

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Lewis and cornerback Nate Clements arrived at the 49ers' facility together on the first day of free agency. Both signed lucrative deals with the Niners certain that the team was heading in the right direction.

But as San Francisco prepares to face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the club has turned into one of the NFL's biggest disappointments.

"This is just a bump in the road," Lewis said. "We have to learn from our mistakes."

It has been a season filled with bumps and plenty of mistakes for the 49ers, who have lost nine of their past 10 games.

When asked if it's difficult to keep a positive attitude during the team's problems, Lewis admitted that it is.

"But we're all professionals," he said. "We all have jobs to do, and everybody has to take care of himself and ask, 'Am I doing my job?'"

Clements was one of the marquee free agent signings in the offseason, as the 49ers awarded him an eight-year, $80 million contract. After never getting a sniff of the playoffs while with the Buffalo Bills, Clements figured he was coming to a team that would be relevant in the NFL.

So far, that has not been the case.

"This is very disappointing," he said. "It's definitely not what I expected or what the team expected. But you just have to roll with the punches."

Clements said his motivation to perform does not change because of his team's record. He said he enjoys playing football, so he will continue to play hard whether or not the 49ers' final four games have any relevance in the NFL standings.

The 49ers are 3-9 and have been mathematically eliminated from the NFC West race. The division-leading Seattle Seahawks own a five-game lead with four weeks to play.

The 49ers have guaranteed themselves a franchise-worst fifth consecutive losing season. The club has won back-to-back games only three times in five seasons, including this season when it began the year with a 2-0 record.

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Trent Dilfer will make his fourth consecutive start for the 49ers at quarterback in Sunday's game, which begins a three-game homestand for San Francisco.

The 49ers are just 1-6 in games Dilfer has played this season, and there is only one qualifying quarterback in NFL passer ratings who is ranked below him.

That happens to be the guy Dilfer is replacing in the lineup, Alex Smith, who will sit out again this week do to arm/shoulder problems and may be done for the season.

Dilfer is 33rd in the NFL with a passer rating of 58.4, ranking ahead of only Smith (57.2) among qualifying quarterbacks.

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Dilfer still has the confidence of the locker room, despite his spotty performances filling in for Smith.

When asked to compare Dilfer and Smith, second-year TE Vernon Davis said Dilfer has better leadership skills.

"Dilfer's been around a lot longer," Davis said. "He's more of a leader than Alex. Alex is good, but he still has some growing to do. Dilfer sees things differently than him."

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Nolan has also been supportive of Dilfer. Recently, he said Dilfer's games against the Rams and Cardinals ranked Nos. 1 and 2 among games from 49ers quarterbacks during his tenure as coach. Smith has started 30 games for the 49ers during that stretch.

"As a football team, you have to play together collectively in order to win the game. We're not doing that," Nolan said. "I believe that Trent (Dilfer), as far as playing quarterback, puts his heart and soul into everything he does. It's evident every time he goes on the field. I admire that, and I think that he's given us the chance to win the games that he's played in. It takes an entire unit to make it work; it's not all on one person's shoulders."

The 49ers have a decision to make with Smith in the offseason. There is an $8 million buyback in his contract. If the 49ers pay the money, it will void the final two years of his contract: 2009 and 2010.

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Smith was guaranteed $24 million as part of the six-year, $49.5 million contract he signed with the 49ers in 2005.

"As all contracts do, there's a point in there where you actually pay a certain fee to have the right to maintain the remainder of the contract," Nolan said.

When asked if the 49ers have decided their course of action with Smith, Nolan answered, "Those discussions are all after the season. We have not had any discussions with respect to that, during this season, right now. Again, that's because it's not the time for that. As I say often, there's a time and a place. Those are after-the-season discussions, they aren't now."

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Linebacker Patrick Willis was credited with 20 tackles against the Carolina Panthers after the 49ers' film review. Willis leads the NFL with 128 tackles this season, according to league statistics. According to the 49ers' tabulations, Willis has 173 tackles this year.

He likely will face his stiffest challenge of the season on Sunday, as he faces the NFL's leading rusher, Vikings rookie RB Adrian Peterson.

Willis and Peterson are the clear favorites to be the NFL's defensive and offensive rookies of the year based on the first 12 games of the season.

"Our goal every week is to hold them to under 100 yards and stop whoever we're playing," Willis said. "That's our goal every week with everybody. We need a good week of preparation."

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Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky left the team earlier this week to return to Pennsylvania after the death of his father, Frank, who was 72. Nolan assumed Manusky's duties while he's gone.

"Before he left, we talked about the plan; we'll talk about it when he gets back," Nolan said. "So as far as calling games, things like that, it is Greg's responsibility. But we'll visit more about that again. With what he's going through, I'm not going to put him in a situation where he's not prepared and that our team isn't."

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LB Jeff Ulrich performed so well on special teams and in practice through the early potion of the season that he continued to find more and more of a role on defense.

Ulbrich was a starter throughout his career before getting replaced in the starting lineup in the middle of last season. However, now he has carved out a significant role for himself in the team's "big sub" defensive package. The alignment is generally used on second downs when the yardage is medium range. It is used when the offense has the option to run or pass.

The 49ers figure to use that defense a lot this week against the Vikings because of their threat of a run game. Even in long-yardage situations, the 49ers will need to keep an eye on Peterson.

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The 49ers added rookie LB Steve Dildine to the practice squad earlier this week after the Miami Dolphins signed Mark Washington off the 49ers' practice squad.

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