JUDGE: Rebuilding period over in San Fran

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Clark Judge



The rebuilding is over in San Francisco, and now the have something different in mind than winning a season. They're more concerned with winning one game. Or maybe two. Those, of course, would be the ' annual meetings with St. Louis. The were all that stood between the and home-field advantage last season. St. Louis beat the twice and finished with a league-best 14-2 record. It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that if San Francisco won those games, the — not the — would have been home for the playoffs. But they weren't, and it wasn't one play or one game that sabotaged them. It was one player. The needed another cornerback. Well, this just in: They have him in rookie , the club's first-round draft pick. And that means the now have their best chance in years to match up with St. Louis. Forget what San Francisco does on offense. Defense is the topic on the table, and the added depth to their line; have speed in undersized linebackers; have more speed and range than they believed in free safety and are young, solid and deep at cornerback. It's that last component that can make the difference. A year ago the didn't have the cornerbacks to cover St. Louis when the spread the field. In fact, when the two teams met for a second time ' defensive coordinator Jim Mora moved , then the club's free safety, opposite the ' slot receiver. The results were predictable: caught 6 passes for a team-high 109 yards and a touchdown. But that was then, and this is now and now ... "Now," said Mora, "we're better prepared to play them." Here's why: The addition of Rumph allows the to move starting cornerback over to their opponent's slot receiver. A year ago, that wasn't possible, and the were forced to try then-rookie and, later, Schulters inside. For the most part, the club was OK ... until St. Louis came along. Now, however, Mora can insert Rumph at his natural right cornerback position and send Webster inside where he's ideally suited to cover someone like Proehl or . "Jason's an excellent blitzer," said Mora. "He's physical. He's quick. He's fast. He's strong. He's a model nickel corner." And he's part of a secondary that, historically, is critical to the ' success. When Bill Walsh built the club into a Super Bowl champion in 1981 it wasn't only Joe Montana and Dwight Clark who took curtain calls; they were joined by a secondary that featured rookies Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright. That unit was so indispensable that when the won their second Super Bowl in 1984 all four starting defensive backs were named to the Pro Bowl. "We wouldn't have won it without them," said Walsh, now a consultant with the team. "That was as much a strength of the team as the offense." Nearly two decades later, the got the message. For all the passing yards that and will accrue and all the defensive linemen that and will bowl over, it's defense in general and the secondary in particular that will determine how far the go against St. Louis. "We're more physical, and our guys will be more confident," said Mora. "They're not afraid of the challenge." Presumably, that includes Rumph, who played opposite future pros while at the University of Miami. I know he's green, and, yes, I remember how Washington torched him in the preseason opener. But he has size, he's physical and he has seven weeks to get ready for the . Plus, the are accelerating his education by matching him up opposite Owens in practices, and there's no better or more physical receiver on the ' roster. "I'm definitely a good example of what he's going to face on Sundays," said Owens. "And I'm usually going full speed." His team will, too, if Rumph gets the hang of things. It's a lot to put on a rookie's shoulders, but, hey, Lott and Wright did it ... and they had to start. "It's a good and a bad thing," Rumph said. "It's a good thing in that they've challenged me, and I get to go out here and show what I can do. At the same time it's moving fast, and, before you know it, the are going to be here. And then I've got to be ready." That's the idea, Mike. The aren't just counting on it; their hopes for this season may depend on it. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address:
Tagged: Titans, Rams, 49ers, Tony Parrish, Ricky Proehl, Jeff Garcia, Jason Webster, Terrell Owens

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