Monday, December 18, 1989

DEFENSE SPARKLES,
OFFENSE STRUGGLES
IN A 21-10 VICTORY

By Ric Bucher
San Jose Mercury News

This is the time of year most teams fortunate enough to have their place in the postseason assured are making a list of their deficiencies. The 49ers, being one of those teams, made just such a list in preparation for Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills.

And they can use the same list in next week's season finale against the Chicago Bears.

That's because the only query of any importance that was quelled in their 21-10 victory over the Bills was one about their commitment to win, posed by Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula. The Dolphins were hoping to parlay a win over the Indianapolis Colts with a Bills loss to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East. Shula understandably balked when he learned that the Niners intended to rest several starters, most notably quarterback Joe Montana.

Niners Coach George Seifert made note of that to his players Saturday night, telling them: "Nothing would be more satisfying than to be able to call Don Shula after the game and say we did our part."

Seifert played down the remark, however, after the Niners had improved their record to 13-2 before 60,927 at Candlestick Park. "It was just a figure of speech," he said. "It wasn't a battle cry; you know, 'Win one for Miami.' It was just we were being challenged from a credibility standpoint."

The defense answered that challenge from the outset, limiting the AFC's No. 1 offense to 121 yards and three points in the first half. Though they were less stingy the last two quarters, allowing seven more points and 180 yards, the 49ers made up for it in the ballhawking department by forcing five turnovers. For Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, a mediocre day turned downright awful when the Niners intercepted three of his passes in the second half. Nor could his waning popularity in Buffalo have improved when two of those picked-off passes led to 49ers touchdowns. A Niners fumble recovery set up another touchdown and helped knock Buffalo (8-7) into a tie for first with Miami and Indianapolis.

''Our defense kept us in the ballgame," Seifert aid.

The offense wasn't as quick off the mark. Seifert and offensive-line coach Bobb McKittrick attributed the team's scoreless first half -- its first in four seasons and 82 games -- to the Bills' using a defensive scheme specifically designed to shut down the staple of the Niners' attack this season: short passes.

''They played us differently than we'd seen them play all year," McKittrick said. "I'd say it was a lack of respect for the run and a unique respect for the short passing game."

The 49ers, in true take-what-they-give-you spirit, went to the run almost exclusively in the second half, finishing with 43 running plays after attempting a mere 15 in the first half.

That the offense scored all three touchdowns in the second half -- actually in the span of 5 minutes, 40 seconds -- shouldn't be construed to mean the Niners' ground game is in playoff shape.

Yes, running back Roger Craig rushed 25 times for 105 yards, giving him 1,023 yards for the season. And yes, two of the Niners' TDs occurred on runs: a 1-yarder by Craig in the third quarter and 2-yarder by quarterback Steve Young in the fourth.

But keep these particulars in mind:

* Much of Craig's yardage was gained behind the blocking of tight end Jamie Williams, who played extensively only because of Wesley Walls' sore hamstring. Williams has to be factored into whatever success the Niners claim, which only adds another question about who should be at tight end -- Williams, Walls or Brent Jones, known more as a pass receiver than a blocker.

* The Niners ran for only 149 yards against a rushing defense ranked 16th in the NFL.

''I'd like to have had 300 yards (rushing) on a day like this," McKittrick said. "We can take what they give us. That's what it showed. But I think we should have done it sooner. For whatever reason, it took us too long to get it going."

It also was a defense more concerned with harassing Young -- which the Bills did -- than stopping Craig. Young was sacked three times and forced to rush at least a half-dozen passes. Add a few dropped balls in the first quarter, and Young finished with his worst statistical outing of the season -- 9 of 19 for 166 yards. Two of his passes were intercepted.

Young might have made up for all this were he not so intent on dispelling his reputation for heading upfield at the first sign of trouble. Consequently, the stats page had Young with one rushing attempt for 0 yards at the end of the first half. That's somewhat misleading, but only because he easily ran for more than 50 yards, albeit behind the line of scrimmage.

''Yeah, I don't want to do that," he said. "I want to set up and throw 30 passes from the pocket. I'm a believer in the way it's done here."

As for the Niners' running attack, it's hard to know just what to believe at this point. They opened the second half with center Jesse Sapolu back at the left-guard spot he played last season; left guard Guy McIntyre at right guard, replacing Bruce Collie; and long snapper Chuck Thomas at center. It reminded more than one person of the Niners' Super Bowl alignment, except for Thomas in place of retired center Randy Cross.

''It's not an experiment," said Seifert. "We've done it before this season. We just wanted to work Chuck some. We could see more of it, but I can't say you'll see it a whole hell of a lot. We felt we could do it, and I think this solidified our feelings a little bit more."

Craig's especially.

''I saw that and I said, 'This is our chance to kill them now!' " he said. "That was my line last year. I think we're going to see that in the future. I have a funny feeling."

Maybe, maybe not. Add it to the list.