Hill, 49ers look to finish on winning streak

At least for one week, the 49ers found an efficient quarterback. Shaun Hill, in his sixth NFL season, will make his second career start Sunday when the 49ers face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Monster Park. If he can come close to duplicating the performance in his first start, the 49ers have a chance to pull off the upset against the NFC South champions, who are six-point road favorites.

Hill is scheduled to start the 49ers' remaining games this season, coach Mike Nolan said.

"That's the goal; we want to finish with three wins," Hill said. "It would be a great way to head into 2008 if we can win our last three games."

The season has been a disaster for the 49ers, who entered this year with high expectations. Coming off a 7-9 record, the 49ers expected to make a serious push for the NFC playoffs this season.

However, the 49ers fell out of contention after winning their opening two games. The 49ers lost eight consecutive games after their strong start. The losing streak was marked by inconsistent play from quarterbacks Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer.

Smith sustained a separated right shoulder on Sept. 30, opening the door for the veteran Dilfer to enter the starting lineup. Dilfer struggled mightily in two starts before Smith returned to the starting lineup.

Smith was clearly not healthy but Nolan started him for the next three games. Finally, Smith had to get surgery performed on his throwing shoulder, which again opened the door for Dilfer, who played slightly better in his second go-round.

Dilfer's season came to an end on Dec. 9 when he sustained a bad concussion on a hit from Minnesota cornerback Charles Gordon. Hill has played the past six quarters for the 49ers - the six best quarters by a San Francisco quarterback this year.

Dilfer is the lowest-rated passer in the NFL with a 55.1 rating. He ranks 33rd in the league. Smith is only slightly better with a 57.2 rating, but does not have enough attempts to qualify.

Meanwhile, Hill has been exceptional in his limited action. He has completed 78.2 percent of his passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating is 107.4.

Hill's popularity is growing in the San Francisco area -- a spot that was once known for its strong quarterback play. Hill was asked if he thinks his performance has been enough to get fans believing in the once-obscure signal-caller.

"As far as being Shaun Hill believers, I hope so," Hill said. "I'm a believer."

Hill's obscurity already is beginning to change. He showed up Wednesday with a new haircut, although he wanted it a week earlier.

"Last week they couldn't fit me in," Hill said. "This week I got right in."

So far, Hill has faced two of the worst defenses in the league. The Vikings rank 20th in the league, including last in the NFL against the pass. The Bengals own the 28th-ranked defense in the league.

Things will certainly get a lot more difficult for the 49ers this week against the Buccaneers, who own the No. 3 defense in the NFL.

"They're a challenge," Nolan said. "They're a very good defense. They've been good year-in and year-out. They've got some outstanding, experienced players in (Derrick) Brooks and (Ronde) Barber. I was surprised to learn that they weren't chosen for the Pro Bowl.

The biggest challenge facing Hill will be the task of going up against the Buccaneers' famed Cover 2 defense.

"That's their bread-and-butter," Nolan said. "But at the same time, they aren't vanilla about bringing people into the box. They zone blitz a lot. That typically requires another guy in the box. They are an aggressive defense. It will be a different kind of a challenge than it was the other day, but it will be a good one. They have some good players."

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Tight end Delanie Walker has seen increased playing time as the 49ers have gone to a lot more two-TE formations in recent weeks, as fullback Moran Norris has gotten a lot less playing time. Walker has played 61 snaps the past two weeks, as the two TE-formation has turned into the 49ers' base offense.

Meanwhile, Norris has seen a big dip in his playing time after being a key figure in the 49ers' run game last season as the lead blocker for Frank Gore. Norris played 22 snaps last week in the victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He played just 23 snaps in the previous three games combined.

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--- TE Vernon Davis is tied for the team lead with 47 receptions, but he has also shown some inexperience. He leads the team with nine penalties, seven of which have been for false starts.
--- T Damane Duckett was promoted to the 53-man roster after spending the first 15 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad. The 49ers wanted to guarantee that Duckett would return to the 49ers next season. He has a chance to compete for a starting job at right tackle.
--- RB Michael Robinson is the 49ers' leading special-teams tackler with 24 stops this season. He has also made 76 blocks in the return game, according to stats compiled by the 49ers' coaching staff. Robinson took part in limited practice Thursday with a left shoulder stinger. He is expected to play Sunday in his usual special teams roles.
--- S Michael Lewis ranks second on the team with 116 tackles. He has been solid in all areas for the 49ers, though he was beaten for a deep TD last week by the Bengals' Chris Henry.
--- OLB Tully Banta-Cain has been a huge disappointment for the 49ers this season. Expected to be the team's top sack artist, Banta-Cain has provided virtually no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Banta-Cain has just 2.5 sacks.
--- WR Arnaz Battle went through limited practice Thursday and is expected to start and play Sunday against the Buccaneers. Battle has started all but one game this season. He is tied for the team lead with 47 receptions. He leads the 49ers with 581 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
--- RB Frank Gore went through limited practice Thursday but is expected to start against the Buccaneers. Gore is just 81 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark. He is looking to become only the fifth back in 49ers history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, joining Joe Perry, Roger Craig, Garrison Hearst and Charlie Garner.
--- P Andy Lee has a 42.4-yard net punting average on a league-high 87 punts. He has two games standing in his way to becoming the only punter in NFL history to average more than 40 yards net for an entire season.
--- QB Trent Dilfer is not expected to play again this season after sustaining a bad concussion Dec. 9 against the Vikings. If Dilfer would be available, it would be as a backup, as Shaun Hill has earned the starting job.
--- RB Maurice Hicks, who is scheduled to be a free agent, has not seen a lot of action this season. He has carried just 19 times for 96 yards. He is the 49ers' main kickoff return man. He has averaged 24.3 yards on 55 returns.
--- WR Darrell Jackson benefited from the 49ers' short-passing game with Shaun Hill at quarterback. Jackson, who has largely struggled in his first season with the 49ers, caught eight passes for 86 yards. For the season, he has just 41 receptions for 442 yards.
--- LB Patrick Willis was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team, the first 49ers rookie honored since Ronnie Lott in 1981. Willis leads the NFL with 142 tackles, 20 more than the second-leading tackler, Detroit's Ernie Sims.
--- G Larry Allen was named as an alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl team. Allen has been selected to the Pro Bowl 11 times in his 14-year career.
--- CB Nate Clements was named as an NFC Pro Bowl alternate. He is third on the 49ers with 100 tackles (93 solo). He has three interceptions, three forced fumbles and 14 passes defensed.

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