San Jose Mercury

No time for 49ers' secondary to relax
January 10, 2003

By Dennis Georgatos
Mercury News

Ahmed Plummer is eager to put some distance between him and the worst outing of his three-year career.

And the first chance for the 49ers cornerback comes Sunday in a divisional playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

``Whenever I don't play to my standards, it just drives me even more to get back out there and go back to the drawing board and see how much better I can get,'' Plummer said.

Plummer's ragged performance was the latest example of the inconsistent play that, along with injuries, has been at the heart of the 49ers' season-long struggles in the secondary, problems that came to a head Sunday in a 39-38 first-round victory over the New York Giants.

The 49ers advanced despite allowing Kerry Collins to throw for four scores and 342 yards, the third-highest total by an opposing quarterback in 49ers postseason history.

But Plummer, the team's best cover man, became a flash point for the secondary's vulnerabilities as he was mauled in his matchup with Giants receiver Amani Toomer, who had eight receptions -- including three touchdowns -- for 136 yards.

``When one of your best players has a tough day and you're still able to overcome it and win, it's a great thing,'' defensive coordinator Jim Mora said Thursday of Plummer. ``He fought through it and now he's better for it. I feel that we survived the storm.''

Another one could be on the horizon for the 49ers, whose pass defense ranked in the bottom third of the league.

Tampa Bay's passing game should get a boost from the return of Brad Johnson, the NFC's top-rated quarterback who missed the last two regular-season games because of a lower-back contusion. And after seeing how the Giants took advantage of the 49ers' mangled secondary, Tampa Bay figures to take its shots as well.

``They've given up a couple throws here and there, but Plummer's a young guy and when he's on, he's on,'' Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said. ``For whatever reason, Kerry Collins makes some great throws, and sometimes there is no defense for the great throw.''

Plummer, who has worked this week to correct errors in his technique that contributed to his breakdowns, said he expects the Bucs to test him regularly.

``I'm ready for that reaction because that's what most people do,'' he said. ``And I welcome it. I'll never step down from any challenge.''

Although Tampa Bay's offense has been largely mediocre -- the Bucs ranked 24th in total offense and 18th in points -- Johnson has had his moments, including throwing for a club-record 22 touchdowns.

In his 13 starts, the Bucs averaged nearly 24 points, almost twice their average output in the three games he missed because of injury. And Tampa Bay's wide receivers -- Keyshawn Johnson (76 receptions), Keenan McCardell (61) and Joe Jurevicius (37) -- are all capable of putting pressure on a secondary that hasn't had its starting foursome together since Oct. 14, when safety Zack Bronson broke his left foot.

``We've been beat up all year back there,'' Mora said. ``We just have to keep trying to figure out ways to win. It hasn't been pretty, but as long as we win, we'll take it. At this point, that's all that matters.''

While Bronson returned from an 11-week absence against the Giants, cornerback Jason Webster missed the game because of a left-ankle sprain. Webster remains questionable, and if he can't play, rookie Mike Rumph will make a second consecutive start.

Bronson, who didn't play in the fourth quarter Sunday because of fatigue and foot soreness, has rebounded with strong practices and will be available to start.

``It would have been great to have the secondary at full strength throughout the year, but that's the way we've had to play,'' said safety Tony Parrish, who has played with a brace over his dislocated right elbow the past six weeks. ``We've had to be versatile. We've had to be able to move on and adapt.''

Mora said Gruden has installed a similar scheme to the one he used as coach of the Raiders, which for Brad Johnson usually means a three-step drop and a quick throw. That will make it difficult to reach Johnson with the pass rush and will put more pressure on the secondary to maintain coverage.

``If you watch how the Raiders play, how everything is quick in timing, Tampa Bay is a lot like that,'' Mora said. ``It's not like we're going to be smacking him around all day, I don't think. They do a real nice job of protection and getting rid of the ball quick.''

After giving up a series of big pass plays against the Giants, the 49ers will need to be more disciplined defensively.

``We just have to tighten up our coverage,'' linebacker Julian Peterson said. ``Communicating with one another is the key.''

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