San Francisco Examiner

Defense regains a leader
January 03, 2003
Of The Examiner Staff

SANTA CLARA -- Come Sunday, when the 49ers face the sizzling New York Giants in an intriguing first-round NFL playoff matchup at Candlestick Park, the hometown boys will have their quarterback back.

No, we're not referring to Jeff Garcia -- the three-time Pro Bowl selection who played all of one series in the debacle that saw the 49ers blow a 17-point lead en route to falling 31-20 to St. Louis on Monday.

We're talking about Niners safety Zack Bronson, the defensive signal-caller who has been sidelined for weeks.

Bronson has been girding for this moment ever since he broke his left foot in the first half of San Francisco's 28-21 win at the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6. The 49ers' defense has struggled since Bronson -- who had three interceptions before having a 3-inch screw inserted into his foot -- went down.

But Bronson's return couldn't come at a more appropriate time, what with the Giants (10-6) riding a hot-handed Kerry Collins, the man behind the NFL's sixth-ranked passing offense, and a red-hot New York team that has won four straight to qualify for postseason play as a wild card.

"It's going to give us a tremendous boost to have Zack back," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said Wednesday. "Emotionally, him being in the huddle is a different feel, the way he's able to play and make adjustments and control the secondary back there.

"It's going to really help."

Will it ever. Bronson's return provides immediate relief at safety, allows Tony Parrish to return to strong safety and strengthens the nickel package with Ronnie Heard coming off the bench on passing downs.

"It's just nice to be out there and be able to contribute," Bronson said. "This team has overcome a lot of things.

"Everybody plays an important role. We're getting people back, a lot of people healthy and it's going to play an important factor."

Parrish, who has sported a makeshift tattoo with Bronson's No. 31 on his right bicep, said Bronson's return should provide immediate dividends.

"It means a lot to our defense," Parrish said. "It gives us more of the variety we had earlier in the year."

The loss of Bronson -- coupled with the knee injury that has sidelined promising second-year linebacker Jamie Winborn for 14 weeks -- has contributed to the 49ers' problems defending the pass.

Before Bronson went down, opponents averaged 202.4 passing yards against the 49ers (10-6). In the 11 weeks Bronson has been sidelined, San Francisco's pass defense has yielded an average of 226.7 yards per game.

To further underscore how much the defense has been adversely impacted by the loss of the sixth-year free safety, consider this: Since Week 11 of 2001, Bronson's nine interceptions are second in the NFL.

It is a revealing stat, especially since Bronson hasn't played in 11 weeks.

Now, whether Bronson's return will be enough to save a defense that is last in the NFL in stopping opponents on third downs remains to be seen. Conventional thinking suggests that Bronson will be rusty when he makes his first start since the injury.

"I understand that I've missed a lot of time," Bronson said. "Right now, at this point, I can't be second-guessing. I have to be sharp. There's no tomorrow. We got to line up and go forward."

The Niners believe that, while Bronson may not be in top physical form, his intelligence and experience offset the effects of not having played in 2 months.

"He's practiced for a couple weeks," Mora said. "It's not like he's battle-worn. There's going to be certain things he hasn't done in a long time, but you guys know how Zack is. Zack is the consummate pro.

"There's not going to be anyone more prepared mentally nor physically than he is. He's going to have to adapt to the speed of the game. I think Zack will step right in and pick up where he left off."

Mora can only hope so, particularly with the Niners' defense going up against the Giants' triumvirate of receiver Amani Toomer (82 receptions), halfback Tiki Barber (1,387 rushing yards) and Jeremy Shockey, the cantankerous rookie who has caught more passes (74) than any tight end in the NFL.

But as has been the case this season, just when one player returns to health, another injury pops up. This week, it's cornerback Jason Webster, who sprained his left ankle against the Rams and is listed as questionable.

Webster did not practice, but coach Steve Mariucci said Webster is improving. Of greater concern, though, is Winborn, whose 16-tackle performance in the season-opening road win over the Giants earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

The 49ers had hoped to have Winborn -- who had scar tissue removed from his left knee in a minor arthroscopic procedure three weeks ago -- back for the playoffs. But Winborn continues to experience pain and is listed as doubtful.

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