Getting something started in the desert

In recent weeks, so far as the San Francisco 49ers' defense was concerned, the quarterback sack had become little more than a rumor - a feat for other defenses to accomplish, a feat players such as Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor only could dream of. In a 17-14 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday before a sparse crowd at Sun Devil Stadium that included a large contingent of 49ers fans, the quarterback sack regained a place in the Niners' defensive arsenal.

Carter had two sacks, Okeafor and rookie Josh Shaw one apiece, and Bryant Young and Jeff Ulbrich shared another. Shaw's sack was the first of his career, Carter's gave him 11 this season, and the defense produced a season-high five. It was the most sacks the 49ers had produced in a game since getting six in a win over Miami a year ago.

And with nothing on the line against the Cardinals - the 49ers (10-5) are locked in as the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs - the sacks and overall strong play of the defense were a heartening development.

``Our thing was to play hard,'' Carter said. ``(Defensive line coach) Dwaine Board said that in December, that's when the good players make the big plays.''

Coach Steve Mariucci added, ``The pass rush was very good. We mixed up our blitzes well. We didn't let (Cardinals quarterback) Jake (Plummer) get out of the pocket much. And our pass coverage was better. We made Jake hold onto the ball a little longer.''

The 49ers beat the Cardinals (5-10) with defense, and in so doing, they improved their record against NFC West teams to 5-0. They will sweep their division games if they win in St. Louis in their regular-season finale on Dec. 30.

The offense - playing without All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens, who was resting his various aches and pains - did just enough to win.

Fred Beasley caught a 25-yard touchdown pass - his first touchdown of the season - in the first quarter.

Garrison Hearst ran 8 yards for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter. Cedrick Wilson's 37-yard kickoff return helped set up Hearst's touchdown.

It marked the first game this season in which the offense scored on its opening drive in each half. Otherwise, though, this was a day for the defense.

The 49ers held Arizona running back Marcel Shipp to 84 yards on 20 carries - and 40 of those yards came on one play. The linebackers had their second big game in a row. Derek Smith, Julian Peterson and Ulbrich combined for 23 tackles, one week after making 34 in the 49ers' loss to Green Bay.

``It's a defense designed for the linebackers to make all the plays,'' Young said. ``As it is with any defense, the linebackers should be making most of the plays.''

Young's fellow defensive tackle, Dana Stubblefield, was in agreement.

``That's what the defensive line is for,'' he said. ``We don't mind taking double-teams if Derek and Julian are making tackles.''

But the linebackers weren't the only ones making plays.

Safety Tony Parrish made his team-leading sixth interception of the season, and then, of course, there were those sacks.

In the previous five games before Arizona, the 49ers had reached opposing quarterbacks only twice - and on one of those sacks, Philadelphia quarterback Koy Detmer had aided the cause by slipping and falling.

Many times in recent games, the 49ers had gotten close to opposing quarterbacks, only to watch them scramble out of trouble. Sometimes, the quarterbacks escaped and made big plays. Other times, the pressure caused mistakes.

``We were getting there but not getting sacks,'' Stubblefield said. ``This time, we got the pressure, got the sacks, got an interception. A lot of things were clicking for us.''
The 49ers were on top of Plummer from the start - and this time, he couldn't snake his way out of danger.

``The past few weeks, (quarterbacks) have been doing a lot of 3-step drops and getting rid of the ball,'' Carter said. ``When they do that, it's tough to get sacks. We've also had a nicked up secondary.''

The 49ers' defensive backfield, however, gave the Cardinals' receivers little room to maneuver, and that also played into the defensive line's productivity.

``It kind of works together,'' cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. ``Sometimes, the pass coverage was great, and it gave the line time. And sometimes, the line got there on its own.''

When the playoffs begin in two weeks, it will be imperative for the San Francisco defense to continue what it started in Arizona.

And even though this game meant nothing in the standings, it was clear the 49ers' defenders didn't approach it that way.

``You don't,'' Stubblefield said. ``You can't. You saw the way we played. Guys were flying around, making plays, doing what they're supposed to do."

Plummer passed for only 109 yards, and after subtracting the yardage lost to sacks, his net total was a mere 76 yards. His longest completed passes were two that went for only 15 yards each.

It was quite a contrast to Plummer's performance in the teams' first meeting, a 38-28 win by the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Oct. 27. That day, Plummer was intercepted three times, but also passed for 286 yards. The Cardinals ran for 151 yards that day, too.

This time, the Cardinals finished with only 184 yards total offense - the fewest yards allowed by the 49ers in a game this season. Though it had problems putting points on the scoreboard - the main reason the final result was so close - San Francisco's offense also had a productive day with 358 yards as the Niners nearly doubled Arizona's offensive output.

``I think our defense has improved a lot since the last time we played them,'' Mariucci said. ``Besides the two touchdowns, we shut them down.''

And one of the Cardinals' touchdowns came when they got the ball at the 49ers' 33 after a fumble by Beasley. Only one of Arizona's drives lasted more than seven plays.

``I'll have to wait and see on film how well we played,'' Ulbrich said. ``At times, it seemed we played well. We're trying to start a fire."


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