Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky did nothing to douse speculation that Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who will be released in coming weeks, might wind up in red and gold.
"When I had Shawne he was a great player," Manusky said today. "That's four years ago. I don't know what has happened since then, but I know as a former coach of his, his attitude, his intensity, his desire as a football player was outstanding when I had him. I loved everything about the kid. I think he was a true football player and a lucky football player half the time, but I wish him the best. I haven't spoken to him since I left, actually."
Asked if he could see himself coaching Merriman again, Manusky said, "I don't know. We'll see what happens. I don't know what's going on. I don't even ... I don't know what the scenario is down there in San Diego. He's a fine football player when I had him. And I haven't seen him - he's been banged up a little bit. I know that. But that's all I really know."
Manusky was Merriman's position coach in 2005 and 2006. Merriman had 27 total sacks over that span and made the Pro Bowl each year. In 2007, Manusky was hired to run the 49ers defense, and since then Merriman's performance has declined sharply. He's started only 16 games over the last 2 Â½ seasons. His sack and tackle totals over his first three seasons: 39.5 and 145. In the following three seasons, those totals are four and 32.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have lacked a so-called sack master since Andre Carter left for free agency following the 2004 season. However, their 44 sacks as a unit last year tied for third in the league. This year, the numbers are down. They have 12 through six games, ranking them 13th in the league. The relative rankings, however, are somewhat skewed until every team has its bye.
Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson shed a bit more light today on why it's been so difficult to put running back Frank Gore on the bench this season. Every year, it seems, blitz pick-up becomes more critical to running an offense. And Gore handles that better than any back he's seen, Johnson said.
"He is a guy that can cover up for a lot of other deficiencies that we have because of his football intellect and how smart he is as a football player," Johnson said. "It's a comfort zone for us as coaches as well but we do have to find ways to make sure we get him some reps."
There are two more things to consider. 1.) The 49ers are starting two rookies on the offensive line. 2.) Gore's backups are a free agent who wasn't added until mid August and a sixth-round draft pick. Quarterback Alex Smith said that Gore does such a good job as a blocker that sometimes the 49ers draw their protections so that he's taking on a defensive end or a defensive tackle.
"I haven't played with many others, but I can't imagine there's anyone better," Smith said. "The amount of time he puts into it, understanding it all the calls, how much work he puts in with the offensive line - he's really instinctive, a really instinctive guy back there."
Still, Johnson said the 49ers had to get Gore more rest as the season goes on. So far, Gore has 116 carries, tying him for fourth in the league. His backups - Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon - have combined for five carries this year.
"We have to use our other backs and take some of the load off of him," Johnson said. "He's in great shape but as the course of the season goes on it may wear him down. So we are very mindful of that, and there will be a plan going forward to make sure we use other people."
-- Matt Barrows