Monday, December 14, 1992


By Nancy Gay
San Jose Mercury News

For the want of an offensive lineman, the quarterback went down. Again. And again.

Seven sacks and plenty of bruises later, it became apparent where the chink in the 49ers' powerful offensive armor is this season. The loss of a starting running back to a shoulder injury had been overcome, but without injured veteran right tackle Harris Barton, quarterback Steve Young was fully exposed to nothing short of brutality against an in-your-face Minnesota Vikings pass rush.

Had the defense not ridden in to save the day late in the fourth quarter, or had reserve running back Amp Lee not rushed for a career-high 134 yards, the 49ers might not have pulled out what amounted to a 20-17 escape over the fading Vikings (9-5) Sunday at the Metrodome.

The victory gives the 49ers a 12-2 record, best in the NFL. And on an afternoon when the 49ers were counting their blessings at the Metrodome, luck shone upon them from elsewhere, too. In the other key NFC contest, Washington knocked off Dallas 20-17 at RFK Stadium, dropping the Cowboys to 11-3. That ensures the 49ers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win at least one of their two remaining home games, against Tampa Bay and Detroit.

That bit of good news, though, didn't arrive until the 49ers were airborne to the Bay Area. Most of the concern after the game centered on what to do with a now-makeshift offensive line that has lost two right tackles to injury.

Reserve guard Ralph Tamm, a Plan B free agent with three years' NFL experience with four teams, was shifted to tackle for the first time in his career and came away with a knee injury in a similar fashion to Barton, who went down last week against the Miami Dolphins. Hurt when a defender was blocked into him and fell on him, Tamm -- who also acts as the 49ers' long snapper -- left with a torn medial collateral ligament late in the third quarter and is scheduled for an MRI examination today.

Between Tamm and his replacement, second-year backup Harry Boatswain, the right-tackle position was responsible for five sacks and a drive-killing penalty. Tamm's illegal-motion penalty on third-and-12 midway through the third quarter negated Young's 37-yard touchdown throw to Jerry Rice, one that would have given the 49ers a comfortable 24-7 lead. The 49ers eventually punted.

All seven of Young's sacks came from the left side of the Vikings' defensive front seven, led by left defensive end Al Noga's three and left linebacker Carlos Jenkins' two.

Had the Vikings' offense, led by struggling quarterback Rich Gannon (9 of 21 passes, 102 yards, no touchdowns), been remotely effective, the 49ers would have been in big trouble. But the 49ers' defense stepped in when Minnesota threatened late in the game.

On second-and-eight from the 49ers' 29, linebacker Tim Harris and defensive end Pierce Holt sacked Gannon for a 6-yard loss. Harris dropped Gannon for 13 yards on the next play, forcing the Vikings to punt.

''We kind of stole this one today," said right guard Roy Foster, who played alongside the array of young substitutes the 49ers used to replace Barton -- and took the brunt of the Vikings' abuse as a result.

''I think they just had a great pass rush today," said Young, whose ability to run out of trouble also was limited, to 14 yards in seven carries.

''They shut down the third dimension, which is Steve running the ball," left tackle Steve Wallace said. "Every time there was a chance for him to run the ball, they had somebody in his face. So he had to go down.

''I could tell when we were out there that they felt we were missing someone or something. So they were really trying to do anything possible to attack the young guys."

Young, who completed 20 of 26 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, tried to downplay the carnage.

''I thought we moved the ball pretty effectively," he said, even though the 49ers' 287 yards was their lowest offensive output this season. "I think the call-back on Jerry's touchdown makes things look a lot different than maybe they should have."

The Vikings' rush did open things up for Lee, who got his second consecutive start in place of Ricky Watters (bruised shoulder). With linemen rushing hard toward the quarterback, Lee broke loose on traps and draws and picked up 43 yards in a late third-quarter scramble. But that drive stalled because of a 5-yard sack of Young on third-and-five, and the 49ers settled for Mike Cofer's 26-yard field goal and a 20-10 lead.

Minnesota cut it close early in the fourth quarter because of a critical 49ers mistake.

Punter Klaus Wilmsmeyer, backed into his end zone, took a high snap from backup snapper Jesse Sapolu and saw cornerback Vencie Glenn coming right at him. Wilmsmeyer ran for it and was tackled by Glenn at the 49ers' 4.

Three plays later, Terry Allen scored on a 1-yard run, cutting the 49ers' lead to 20-17 with 9 minutes, 29 seconds left.

''I think obviously it was a hell of a win for our club against a damn good Minnesota football team," said 49ers Coach George Seifert, who appeared genuinely relieved. "For our club to battle back and play defense and then stop them at the end of the game was pivotal."

For now, the 49ers are turning their attention to signing another offensive lineman as quickly as possible.

With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, their replacement choices probably are limited to linemen they've had in their system before but have released.