At least for one week, the San Francisco 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 on Sunday 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.
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, entering Sunday's game against the Buccaneers.
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.
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."
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."
19th meeting. The 49ers lead 14-4, but the Buccaneers have won three of the past five meetings since 1997. The Buccaneers have not won in San Francisco since 1980.
--The ultimate team player wants the focus of this week's game to be on the team.
Defensive lineman Bryant Young will play the final home game of his 14-year career on Sunday, though he did not want to come out and say it.
"More than likely this is my last home game," Young said. "But we still have two games remaining and I don't want to take any focus off that."
Young, 35, has wrestled with the question of when to call it quits. He contemplated retirement last season, but opted for one more year because he thought the 49ers were on the verge of returning to prominence.
"The question is when you leave the game," Young said. "Do you leave the game when they push you out or when you're barely walking?"
--Linebacker Patrick Willis had no sooner been named to the Pro Bowl and he already started getting his mind set on making sure this isn't the only time he earns this honor.
"This is hopefully just the start," Willis said. "This is only for a moment, when that Pro Bowl is over, then you have to get right back into working and training and doing the things you can to make sure you're ready to start again."
Willis became the first 49ers rookie since Ronnie Lott in 1981 selected to the Pro Bowl team.
"It's special in the sense that this game is not about seniority, it's not about how long you've played, it's about how productive you've been this year," Willis said. "I'm really thankful for that. That shows that hard work doesn't go unnoticed. That just puts more fuel to the fire, to continue to work and press and good things will come of it."
--Punter Andy Lee was honored with his first Pro Bowl selection. He also has a chance this season to become the first punter in league history with a net average of more than 40 yards. When asked what would mean more, Lee said, "I would say the Pro Bowl right now, just because it's what's happening right now. I haven't set a record yet. I have two games left to go out there and do my job. I worry about all the other things that come along with the job at the end of the season. You never know what's going to happen in the last few games. Of course that thought's in the back of my head too, but I try not to think about that as much as possible."
Lee is first in the NFC with averages of 48.3 (gross) and 42.4 (net).
--The 49ers announced their team awards this week. Defensive lineman Bryant Young won the Len Eshmont Award for the eighth time in his 14-year career. The honor is given to the 49ers player who best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Len Eshmont, a member of the original 49ers team of 1946 who died in 1957.
Cornerback Nate Clements was named as the club's winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year. The award recognizes a player for his community service as well as his play on the field. Clements and linebacker Patrick Willis were chosen as co-winners of the Bill Walsh Award for the team's most valuable players.
Center Eric Heitmann was named the Bobb McKittrick Award winner for the second consecutive year. The McKittrick Award is given to the lineman who best exemplifies the dedication, excellence and commitment of the former longtime offensive line coach. And linebacker Jeff Ulbrich won the Hazeltine/Iron Man Award for the second time in his career. The honor goes to the most courageous and inspirational defensive player.
--Quarterback Shaun Hill has toiled in NFL obscurity for most of his six seasons. But that 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."
BY THE NUMBERS: 59.3
The 49ers' percentage on third-down conversions (16 of 27) in the six quarters since Shaun Hill has played quarterback. Up to that point, the 49ers converted just 27.3 percent.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"This kind of job is about winning. Obviously when I first took the job it was about a lot more than just winning, but ultimately it comes down to winning. Our expectations this year were to come out of that and win more games. I'm not going to hide behind the fact that we have won (fewer) games than we anticipated going into the season." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on how winning alleviates the pressure.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
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.
The 49ers promoted offensive tackle Damane Duckett from the practice squad and released Patrick Estes. Duckett has made a successful transition from the defensive line. The 49ers wanted to ensure that he would return to training camp next season.
The 49ers signed rookie receiver Jerard Rabb to the practice squad. The club placed receiver Dominique Zeigler on the practice squad-injured list.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--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.
--T Patrick Estes was waived for the third time this season to make room for Duckett on the 49ers' 53-man roster.
--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.
--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.
The 49ers appeared to turn the clock back to the days of the West Coast offense in their game last week against the Bengals. The 49ers now have the personnel on offense that is conducive to running more short, timing patterns. Quarterback Shaun Hill does not have a big arm, but he does own a quick release and a good feel for going through his progression. The 49ers receivers appear to be better suited at the ball-control type of patterns of the West Coast offense, as opposed to the vertical game they have adopted the past two seasons. Darrell Jackson had his best game of the season last week with eight catches for 86 yards. The 49ers will look to meticulously work their way down the field against the Buccaneers' No. 3-ranked defense. Running back Frank Gore appears to be getting on track with his running, and the offensive line did a good job in the run and pass games.
Defensively, the 49ers have to do a good job of keeping Jeff Garcia contained. The Buccaneers run the ball well, as they rank ninth in the league in average yards per rushing attempt. Earnest Graham is Tampa's leading rusher with 877 yards and a 4.1 average. The 49ers need to turn up the pressure on Garcia in hopes of forcing some turnovers. Ball security will be important for the 49ers, as the Buccaneers are fourth in the NFL with a plus-14 turnover margin. The 49ers are 31st at minus-13.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
49ers LDE Bryant Young, who will play the final home game of his 14-year career, vs. Buccaneers RG Davin Joseph, a second-year pro who has started all 14 games this season.
CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who give the 49ers a pair of quality veteran covermen, vs. WRs Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, who have combined for 115 catches for more than 1,600 yards and seven touchdowns.
TE Vernon Davis, who is tied for the 49ers lead with 47 receptions, vs. SS Cato June, who will try to re-route Davis off the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing he has with Hill.
49ers pass defense, which has been unable to generate much of a pass rush, vs. QB Jeff Garcia, who will have plenty of motivation in his first game back in San Francisco since being released four years ago.
QB Trent Dilfer is definitely out for this week's game with a concussion he sustained Dec. 9. He will not play in the season finale, either.
Battle is back in the starting lineup after being limited to reserve status due to a right ankle sprain.
CB Shawntae Spencer returned to limited practice this week, but his availability for Sunday's game is uncertain due to a left quadriceps strain that he sustained Nov. 25 against the Cardinals.
CB Marcus Hudson returned to limited practice but he might not play this week against the Buccaneers due to a knee sprain he sustained Nov. 25 against the Cardinals.
Gore is seeing limited practice time, but he has played the past six games with a right ankle sprain. Although the injury bothers him, he has learned to adapt. He has played well the past four games.
LB Jeff Ulbrich has two high-ankle sprains but has continued to play. Ulbrich will see significant action again this week as a linebacker in the 49ers' big nickel package.
RB Michael Robinson has a left shoulder stinger but is expected to be available for Sunday's game.