At midseason, the Niners had unquestionably one of the most improved pass rushes in the NFL, and it played a prominent role in their 7-2 start. But that's starting time seem like a long time ago now.
San Francisco's recent sack slump has dropped the Niners to 23rd in the league in sacks per play. A month ago, the 49ers ranked eighth in that category after finishing the 2001 season ranked 27th.
"Sack-wise, we don't have the numbers," said veteran defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who has two of San Francisco's 23 sacks this season. "We're not getting sacks. We're putting pressure on the quarterback, but we're letting him get out of the pocket and make plays."
That resulted in San Diego quarterback Drew Brees finding time to rally the Chargers from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to a 20-17 overtime victory over the Niners on Nov. 17. Last week, against Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck worked free to lead the Seahawks on two touchdown drives in the final four minutes to give the Niners a late scare in their 31-24 win.
Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 134 passes against the Niners the past three weeks, completing 80 for 999 yards. But the only sack San Francisco has to show for that period was a gift. It came when Philadelphia's Koy Detmer slipped in the backfield on the Eagles' first offensive play Nov. 25.
Defensive end Andre Carter and Pro Bowl tackle Bryant Young each were credited with half a sack for touching down Detmer on that play. Almost full eight quarters later, the Niners still will be searching for their next sack on Sunday when they visit Dallas to play the Cowboys.
Carter leads the Niners with 8.5 sacks in his second season, but he has gone quiet recently after recording a sack in five consecutive games. After a fast start, end Chike Okeafor has just two sacks in his last nine games.
Young, once one of the most feared rushing tackles in the league, has just 1.5 sacks. He had a career-low 3.5 sacks last season.
Niners coach Steve Mariucci came to the defense of Young in particular and his pass rush in general.
"There's so much more to it than your sack statistic," Mariucci said. "Are you playing your responsibility properly? Your gap responsibility in the run game, your rush lanes in the pass game? Are you using up two blockers, are you playing from sideline to sideline? Are you chasing down the passer, are you batting down passes? There's a lot of things that will never show up in the statistics."
But Mariucci realizes sacks need to start showing up in San Francisco's defensive statistics again for the Niners to have success. San Francisco slipped from 13th to 23rd in the NFL in total defense during the past three weeks.
This would be a good week for that to happen. The Cowboys rank 31st in the league - next to last - in sacks allowed per play. Dallas quarterback Chad Hutchinson has been sacked 19 times in his five games since becoming the starter.
"We have to make it more difficult on quarterbacks, whether it's Brett Favre or your so-called unheralded guys," Mariucci said. "Whoever it might be, we have to find a way to disrupt his timing, get him to move in the pocket, throw the ball earlier, throw the ball inaccurately, those sort of things. Part of that is playing tight coverage where a quarterback is forced to hang onto the ball."