Preview: 49ers Present Golden Opportunity

The San Francisco 49ers don't have much of a defense and the Vikings offense needs someone or something (like a bad defense) to get them on track. With that, Sunday's game in San Fran could be a critical one for Brad Johnson. We detail the personnel and ugly statistics that make up the 2006 49ers.

Coming off one of their most dominating defeats at home in recent years, the Vikings are looking to regroup and get back on the winning track. On paper, the San Francisco 49ers might be just what the doctor ordered.

While the Niners of 2006 aren't the same awful bunch that has been at the top end of the draft the last couple of years, there is one thing they have in common – when they lose, they lose big. Of their five losses, they have been by margins of 7, 14, 41, 29 and 31 points – with the last three being their last three losses. No other team in the NFL has allowed more than 200 points aside from the 49ers – and they've allowed 235 points.

The problem, clearly, is defense for San Francisco. The 49ers rank last in points allowed, 31st in yards allowed, 31st in passing yards allowed, last in passing touchdowns allowed, 22nd in rushing yards allowed and 31st in rushing touchdowns allowed. In short, they've stunk. Five of their seven opponents have scored 34 points or more.

Up front, the Niners have switched from a 3-4 back to a 4-3 and the results have been dismal. The best lineman on the team, Bryant Young, has been moved around. He is surrounded by seventh-year Marques Douglas – who fits much better in a 3-4 scheme than a classic 4-3 – left tackle Ronald Fields (a second-year pro taken on the fifth round of the 2005 draft) and rookie left end Melvin Oliver – a sixth-rounder out of LSU. Teams have been able to effectively double-team Young and single-block the other three – two of whom are seeing their first full-time NFL action and the other a journeyman better suited to be a run-stuffer. This is a group that can and has been dominated. Opponents have averaged 4.3 yards a rush and scored 11 rushing touchdowns, which should be good news for a Vikings team that has just two touchdowns on the ground this year.

If there is a strength to the 49ers defense, it is in the linebackers – despite the devastating loss of Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. MLB Derek Smith is in his 10th year, but still has the quickness and tackling skills required to be a top middle linebacker in the NFL. He's flanked by rookie Manny Lawson, the 22nd pick in the draft. He was a tall, but under-bulked defensive end in college who played opposite first overall pick Mario Williams at NC State. He has a couple of sacks and is getting more plays called to take advantage of his skills as a blitzer. Jeff Ulbrich mans the weakside and is a solid lunch-pail player who doesn't have top speed, but is a sure tackler. The team also is working rookie Parys Haralson into action. He's undersized for the NFL, but, like E.J. Henderson, plays bigger and has explosion at the point of contact.

The secondary has been a problem for years and nothing seems to have changed. The Niners have been lit up for 15 touchdowns through the air and opposing QBs have a passer rating of 103.6. The team has just four interceptions, which has enticed more teams to try to beat them deep. Third-year corner Shawnte Spencer has the best cover skills of the group and he lines up almost exclusively on the right side. His M.O. is that of being a big-play guy – he makes them, but also gives them up. Eleven-year veteran Walt Harris lines up on the other side and, while he's familiar to Vikings fans from his years with the Bears, this is five years later after stints with the Colts and Redskins. He gets by more on veteran savvy and not getting caught out of position than anything else. Speed receivers can abuse him, so don't be shocked to see the Vikings lining up Troy Williamson if they can get single coverage with Harris. Tony Parrish has been slow returning from a broken leg suffered last year and has been playing behind former Packer Mark Roman. Third-year pro Mike Adams, an undrafted free agent who became a starter last year, mans the free safety position. He's undersized for a safety, but has the speed to serve as a nickel back in obvious passing situations. This is the weakness of the entire team and, with Parrish not his old self, it's even worse.

With a defense that has allowed so many points, it has forced Mike Nolan to ramp up his offense because most 49ers games this year have been shootouts. They haven't always lived up to the task, because the offense remains a work in progress. That begins (and possibly ends) with quarterback Alex Smith. The No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, his rookie season was something to forget. He started seven games as a rookie and completed just 51 percent of his passes with one touchdown, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 40.8 – the worst in the NFL for anyone who threw more than 35 passes. This year has been a much different story. He's completed 60 percent of his passes, is averaging more than 200 yards a game, has a 9-to-5 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and has a passer rating of 84.8. Those who have watched him all year say that he is maturing and the game is starting to slow down for him. In a couple of years, he could be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFC. But for now, he's still on the learning curve.

The running game had been the domain of Kevan Barlow for years, who never shined as the featured back after beginning his career sharing time with Garrison Hearst. Barlow's ouster from San Francisco in a trade to the Jets was ugly – he referred to Nolan as "a Nazi" when he arrived in New York. With Barlow out of the picture, the running game has been the exclusive domain of second-year pro Frank Gore. Gore is a powerful runner, but slipped to the third round of the 2005 draft because of surgeries on both of his knees. There are some who are waiting for the other shoe to drop, but thusfar, Gore has held up well to the pounding of being a featured back. He trails only Tiki Barber, LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and Warrick Dunn for rushing yardage (631) and his 5.1 average is better than all of theirs. A versatile threat, he also is tied for the team lead in receptions with 26 catches. He is the only RB threat on the team – the second highest rusher is Smith – and will need to be bottled up. If the Vikings can stuff Gore, they make the Niners one-dimensional.

The 49ers were pinning much of their offensive hopes on rookie tight end phenom Vernon Davis. Showing the speed of a world-class sprinter, despite being 6-3 and 253 pounds, Davis was the sixth pick in last April's draft and was viewed as a budding superstar. However, he's been sidelined most of the year with a leg injury. In his absence, Antonio Bryant has emerged as the team's big-play threat. He has just 26 catches and two touchdowns, but is averaging 18.2 yards per reception and is working in as Smith's go-to deep threat. Fourth-year man Arnaz Battle lines up opposite Bryant. Battle is a physical receiver who can beat press coverage, but is seen more as a guy to move the chains than change the score. With Davis sidelined, oft-injured tight end Eric Johnson has resumed his role as the primary pass-catching tight end. A player to keep an eye on is Bryan Gilmore. Another injury-plagued player, Gilmore is a physical receiver who has been used recently as a red zone target and has a team best 75-yard reception to his credit.

Up front, the 49ers shocked some observers by convincing 13-year veteran left guard Larry Allen to play for them, considering his career is almost over and the 49ers are still a year or two away from being contenders for the playoffs. He has provided a huge boost to an offensive line that is young by line standards. Left tackle Jonas Jennings is in his sixth year, center Eric Heitmann is in his fifth, right guard Justin Smiley is his third and right tackle Kwame Harris is in his fourth. While far from dominant, they have allowed just two sacks a game and have not only protected Smith, but also opened running lanes for Gore. While the Vikings (if at full strength) have the ability to overwhelm this group, they aren't the pushover they were a year ago.

The 49ers represent a second portion of the Vikings season. After coming out of a brutal opening stretch that included five playoff teams from a year ago, San Francisco is the first of a growing list of teams that the Vikings will meet that have losing records and seasons that are going nowhere. This is exactly the type of team the good teams beat up on and, if the Vikings want to count themselves in that category, one they should beat by two touchdowns. A close victory would still be a win, but this is a team that should be beaten into submission by the end of the third quarter.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Brad Johnson vs. Brad Johnson—
Never before have we had our spotlight matchup be a player against himself, but this is a critical week if the NFL life of Brad Johnson and, with the explanation why, he is a one-man Matchup to Watch this week.

Johnson's benching in the second half of the Patriots game wasn't viewed by most of the media types as that big of a deal when it happened. The Vikings were getting crushed, Johnson had thrown three interceptions and the Patriots were coming with "kitchen-sink" blitzes. Just ask Brooks Bollinger. His first three official plays as a Viking were sacks.

It wasn't until Tuesday when Brad Childress held his day-after press conference that the potential of Johnson being benched became a talking point. His forte has been to not throw interceptions and to manage a game. In seven games, he has four touchdowns and seven interceptions and, if the Vikings had a viable veteran candidate backing up, the talk of a quarterback controversy would be running rampant. Childress seemed to call out Johnson at his press conference, which likely has put some pressure on Johnson to perform very well Sunday vs. the 49ers. And that can be viewed as a legitimate concern to Johnson, given his professional history.

Some fans might not remember that Johnson was the starting quarterback when the 15-1 season of 1998 began. He got injured in the season opener and Randall Cunningham lit up opponents the next several weeks. When Johnson returned, he wasn't nearly as explosive as Cunningham and, when he got banged up in his first start coming back, he was sat for the rest of the season and was traded in the off-season. He went to Washington, where he had an excellent first season, but injuries and ineffectiveness led to him being benched in favor of fellow former Viking Jeff George. At the end of the season, the Redskins, in their infinite wisdom, said the future was in George, not Johnson, and they released him.

His next stop was Tampa Bay. He won a Super Bowl with the Bucs and it seemed his career had come full circle. But, once again, ineffectiveness early in the 2004 season led to him being benched in favor of younger quarterbacks. He never got his starting job back and was out of Tampa at the end of the year.

While most people don't worry about the psyche of a veteran quarterback, Johnson's history has a lot of getting benched and never coming back on the old resume. He may be putting a lot of pressure on himself not to make mistakes and will likely be quicker to take off from the pocket or throw passes away earlier than normal if he's feeling the pressure not to throw a pick.

The good news is that he has the 49ers defense, which allowed 15 touchdown passes and more than 33 points a game. However, if he can't march the Vikings through this defense, second-guessers will be coming out of the woodwork. It's hard to say any mid-season game for a 13-year pro is critical, but Johnson needs to come up big this week. It is weighing on his mind and, for that reason, Johnson & Johnson is this week's Matchup to Watch.

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