Notebook: Niners already in must-win mode?

The 49ers are beginning to feel the pressure. After opening the season with two victories in three games, the Niners have surprisingly looked awful in losing back-to-back games to New Orleans and New England. Now, they face an important game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Candlestick Park – a game they must win to prevent the season from spinning out of control in early October.

Things already have gotten to the point at which there are whispers around the team that if the 49ers are unable to gain a victory before the bye week - the 49ers have games against the Eagles, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks - that coach Mike Nolan could be out of a job at the bye week.

"I think as of the last two weeks, I've been disappointed in our performance," Nolan said. "Up to that point, as I said even after the 0-1 start, that I felt we were a better team than the year before at 1-0. So at 2-1, I felt pretty good about that."

But in consecutive losses, the 49ers' defense performed poorly. The 49ers own the most experienced starting secondary in the NFL, yet they gave up big plays with their veterans committing rookie-type mistakes.

And while the defense was scuffling, the 49ers' offense also failed to get the job done. Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan threw five interceptions in the past two games.

Nolan has recorded an 18-35 record since taking over as head coach in 2005. He had two days of meetings with 49ers ownership at the conclusion of last season before it was decided he would return for a fourth season. Nolan had power of personnel decisions his first three seasons. When the organization decided he would return this season, the club promoted director of player personnel Scot McCloughan to general manager.

Regardless of the impact that the next three games might have on his future with the 49ers, Nolan said he is not approaching it any different than normal.

"I'm always, every day, doing that," Nolan said. "I was doing that last year. Nobody asked me that question last year in the season. But that's what you're doing. You're doing that at all times. This week, I'll be doing that again.

"If you're 5-0, you're coaching for your job. So that doesn't change. That's just the nature of the beast."

The 49ers have shown some reasons for optimism this season. The offense is far better than it was a year ago, when it ranked 32nd in the NFL. The defense was expected to be much better than a year ago, but it is tied for 21st in the league.

The Niners, however, have experienced issues on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the 49ers continue to allow time-consuming drives. Offensively, the 49ers have experienced difficulty sustaining drives. The 49ers' offense ranks 28th in the NFL in third-down conversions, while the defense is 22nd.

One of the 49ers' weaknesses has been its rushing defense. The opposition is averaging 128.4 yards on the ground per game.

"When you're not winning and you're not playing as well as you'd like, you're looking for answers. And in the course of looking for answers, when you find some it's less frustrating," Nolan said.

"I believe the problems that we've had have been very identifiable. The players will recognize it and see that we can do better. We have to get those corrected and play better."

The 49ers have averaged 5.5 yards per offensive play, while surrendering 5.0 yards per play. However, the opposition has run 66 more offensive plays in five games. The defense can't get off the field on third downs, and the offense still has too many three-and-outs.

"Man, we're going to be fine," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "We just have to play it one at a time and get over the hump."

Linebacker Patrick Willis said the problems on defense have come because there is not the attention to detail that is required. The opposition has converted on 41.4 percent of third-down conversions.

"Once we get back in that attack mode we'll be all right," he said. "We can still create a lot of plays for ourselves. We have a bunch of playmakers on this defense, and we just have to get back to where we're playing as a unit."

It's a big game for safety Michael Lewis, who will be facing his former team for the first time. But, he said, it's much more important to win a game than to get any revenge.

"All the pieces are in place here," Lewis said. "We just have to continue to come together as one. We're not playing together. We have the team in place and every week we're working toward that goal.

"I don't hold any vendettas or personal beefs with Philadelphia. We need to win."

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Running back Frank Gore leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage, and he's shown a couple new facets to his game in recent weeks.

Gore lined up at wide receiver against the Patriots and caught a 16-yard touchdown pass against New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs. It was the first time in his career that Gore lined up at wideout and caught a pass.

He promised it won't be the last time. Also, Gore has taken a couple of direct snaps in recent games. He said he has the ability to pass out of that formation, too.

The 49ers signed veteran DeShaun Foster in the offseason to be Gore's backup, but through five games there has been little use for him. Foster has carried the ball just seven times for 21 yards. He also has caught two passes for 14 yards.

Third-stringer Michael Robinson got four snaps against the Patriots. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz used Robinson in the backfield, along with Gore. He also had Robinson as a single-back because of his ability to pass protect. Coach Mike Nolan said Martz is just learning what Robinson can do because Robinson missed most of training camp with a knee injury.

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The 49ers are 12-2 when running Gore has 20 or more rushing attempts. Gore leads the NFL with 603 yards from scrimmage. Since the start of 2006, he ranks second in the league with 4,321 yards.

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Although he might not have left the Eagles on good terms, Lewis said he is still grateful that the organization drafted him.

A routine physical while in college revealed Lewis was living with a heart defect that had gone undetected until that point. He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a disorder found in about 2.2 million Americans in which the heart's two small upper chambers, the atria, quiver instead of beat effectively.

"At first, not knowing about the situation, it kind of scared me," Lewis said. "Then, I figured out what it was and how I could manage it."

Lewis has managed it throughout a standout at Colorado. He has made it to a Pro Bowl with the Eagles. Last season, he ranked second on the San Francisco 49ers with 139 tackles.

"At that time with a heart condition, teams were backing off guys," Lewis said. "They did their research and thought I was fit enough to play for them."

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The 49ers twice passed on former University of California receiver DeSean Jackson in the draft. The organization selected defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer in the first round. Prior to their pick in the second round, the 49ers considered a wide receiver, but he wasn't Jackson.

The names of Texas receiver Limas Sweed and USC offensive lineman Chilo Rachal were written on two cards. A brief discussion ensued before Rachal was named as the pick.

"At the time we had a couple other players we felt we - not necessarily needed - but we thought would help us more quickly," Nolan said. "We thought he'd (Jackson) fit a specific role, as far as where he'd line up in the slot and all that. That is an important role. We at no time diminished his importance just because of his size, because he is an explosive player."

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On a third-and-6 from the 49ers' 10 just before halftime last week, defensive end Justin Smith tossed Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel to the turf.

But referee Mike Carey called Smith for a personal foul - grabbing the back of Cassel's helmet to assist him in making the tackle.

"Whatever. I don't agree with it," Smith said. "I know I had him by the neck. That's part of the body. That's like grabbing his arm. I sure as heck didn't grab his facemask. I don't know."

The Patriots were awarded a first down. Two plays later, Kevin Faulk scored on a 2-yard run with :06 remaining in the first half to give New England a 17-14 lead.

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Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain saw his first game action of the season last week and recorded three tackles and a half-sack against his former team.

Banta-Cain was active, in part, because Manny Lawson was out with a hamstring strain. The 49ers deactivated Roderick Green for the game.

"I always feel like I have something to prove every time I step out on the field," Banta-Cain said. "But it was a little more intense this week, being that I hadn't played in a while. The reason I feel that I'm here is to play and to make plays. So, hopefully, regardless of the loss, they will see that I'm capable of playing well."

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Punter Andy Lee uncorked a career-best 82-yard punt in the second quarter against the Patriots. That ties him for the second-longest punt in 49ers history with Tommy Davis (1962). Larry Barnes holds the 49ers' record for longest punt with an 86-yarder in 1957.



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