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It's a funny feeling, not really caring about football on an autumn Sunday. It's that odd state of limbo—a football purgatory, if you will—known as the bye week. On the bright side, things can't get any worse, but they can't get any better either. For a young team like the 49ers, it's difficult to guess the effects of a week without a game. True, it gives young players like Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and the other rookies (who have yet to really get their feet wet in the NFL regular season) one more week to mature. That's one more week to study film, work on technique, and get a feel for what their relatively new teammates will be up to on any given play. However, it also gives the entire team an extra week to brood about a 28-3 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts. And, in light of their current 1-4 record, it's another week to wonder just how much of the optimism Coach Nolan has been projecting is just an act. That, of course, is exactly what Mike Nolan does not want his players to think about. But, then again, he's a rookie too. All in all, a free week seems like a good excuse to start looking ahead rather than behind.
This Sunday the 49ers take on the 3-2 Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in what promises to be... well, nothing. This is just one of those games that's hard to predict. Yes, the Redskins have had a dominant defense so far. Yes, they won three games in a row to start the year. Yes, Joe Gibbs, architect of the former Redskins dynasty, is back at the helm. But does anyone really believe them to be contenders in the league, or even in their own division—the highly competitive NFC East? That's not to say that the 49ers should have an easy time of it, but no one should mistake Washington for a juggernaut.
On offense, establishing the run will be key for the Niners. They should run early and often even though this is the strength of the 'Skins defense, even if the ground game's production is minimal early on, and even if Kevan Barlow reverts to his former self of two or three weeks ago. Why, do you ask? Two words: rookie quarterback. Sooner or later, Alex Smith will have to learn to succeed on his own, regardless of how many men the opposition drops into coverage, but now is not that time. Now is the time when the scheme needs to set up the quarterback rather than the other way around. Getting production out of play action passes, and hopefully holding eight men in the box, can only help the rook get off to a good start in his second game. It will certainly be a tough match-up for the offense as a whole, but if the Niners can establish the run it will be an excellent sign for a still developing unit up front (which will still be missing LT Jonas Jennings) and a big help to a quarterback we all hope will develop.
The 49ers face an easier task on defense. Fresh off of holding the Colts' usually high scoring offense to just 21 points, they will face a Washington offense with noticeably fewer weapons. If the injury depleted 49er defense can keep Redskin speedsters Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in front of them, tackle soundly, and take good angles in pursuit, they should be able to contain the Washington offense led by veteran QB Mark Brunell. Look for Shawntae Spencer to draw the tough Moss assignment most often in coverage, and probably lose the battle once or twice. So long as Tony Parrish or Mike Adams is there to keep Moss from a long gain, the 49ers will have won the war. The same basic idea holds true for stopping Portis. As long as he's only gaining three or four yards per carry, the defense will be doing its job. But, if Portis manages to get past the linebackers, he has the kind of breakaway speed to run all day long without the 49ers defense catching him. That's really the problem with this match-up: the Niner D could win nineteen plays out of twenty, but the twentieth play could be a touchdown. One of Coach Nolan's biggest points of emphasis so far this season has been assembling a defense full of players who succeed within the system, or in other words, play disciplined football. This Sunday's game should be the perfect measuring stick to see how far the defense has come towards achieving that goal.
This week's game is somewhat of a quandary for one more reason: no matter what the outcome, it's difficult to say where these teams are at this point. If the 49ers manage to pull out a win, are they a bunch of young, up-and-comers in the NFL, sending a strong message to the rest of the league to watch out for the new contenders on the rise for '06 or '07? Or, is it just a statement that the Redskins, who have already lost two in a row, are finally coming down to earth? Alternatively, if the 49ers lose, is it because they faced a dominant defense and an offense with just enough firepower and speed to keep them on their toes? Or is it because the hometown team just isn't ready yet? No, there's only one thing this game will tell us for sure, and it's still crucial: how far back will the 49ers be from the division leaders. After all, they are in the NFC West.
Injuries: It's likely that the offense will be missing WR Arnaz Battle, LT Jonas Jennings, and possibly WR/PR Otis Amey this week. Rookie WR Rasheed Marshall could take over for Amey as the team's third WR and starting return-man. Expect Johnny Morton to continue to fill in for Battle, and Anthony Clement for Jennings.
On defense, the team will still be missing Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph in the secondary, as they were facing Indianapolis. Jeff Ulbrich is now out for the season with a torn biceps, and with the recent injury to Saleem Rasheed (who was expected to fill in), Derek Smith will slide over to fill Ulbrich's position, and Brandon Moore will take over Smith's. There is some good news for the LB corps, though, as Julian Peterson is expected to return to action this week.