San Francisco 49ers focus on run to help sputtering offense

Updated: October 6, 2003, 10:58 PM ET

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Long known for their prolific passing, the San Francisco 49ers are turning to their ground attack to move their struggling offense forward as they enter a crucial stretch of schedule.

The Niners have not found much rhythm in their passing game under new head coach Dennis Erickson, who promised a more aggressive downfield approach upon his arrival in February. Instead, the team has been carried by a rushing attack that has been the most consistent aspect of an offense which continued to sputter in Sunday's 24-17 victory over the Detroit Lions.

The 49ers rushed for 142 yards against Detroit, helping seal the deal against the Lions, who had rallied from a 17-point deficit to make it close at the end.

"Obviously, we are having much more success running the football with consistency," Erickson said Monday. "We probably are becoming more of a run team. As we get our front (line) back now, maybe that is the case."

But despite ranking fifth in the NFL in total yards gained, the Niners are an uncharacteristic 16th in passing.

"Maybe I looked at it a little differently, trying to get the ball down the field and then run it as opposed to going the other direction with this team," Erickson said. "But I really believe that if we continue to become a good run team, then all of that other stuff going down the field will come into play."

In the gusty winds of 3Com Park, quarterback Jeff Garcia twice failed to hit wide-open star receiver Terrell Owens in stride with passes that could have gone for long touchdown plays. Those two plays characterized the frustrations the Niners have faced all season.

The 49ers couldn't put away the Lions with a quick strike. So they kept the ball away from them instead, using scrambles by Garcia and tough runs by tailbacks Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow behind the lead blocks of fullback Fred Beasley.

While gaining a game-high 74 yards rushing, Hearst became the fourth player to rush for 5,000 career yards with the 49ers. He also moved past Mike Pruitt into 31st place among the NFL's all-time leading career rushers with 7,410 yards.

"The biggest thing for me was the end of the game when we were able to run it and eat the clock and get first downs," Erickson said. "We ran it pretty well against their run defense. The veterans in that group really took it upon themselves in the last couple of drives to run the football."

Erickson said he may shift to a more run-oriented philosophy with his team facing each of its three NFC West division foes in the next month. That stretch begins with Sunday night's game in Seattle against the division-leading Seahawks.

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LINE COULD GET ANOTHER BOOST: Veteran left tackle Derrick Deese, who has not allowed a sack in 25 consecutive games, returned to the starting lineup against the Lions and played for the first time since the Sept. 7 opener.

Deese did an "excellent job" in pass protection, Erickson said, and also contributed in run blocking despite a lingering high ankle sprain.

The Niners could get regular left guard Eric Heitmann back this week. Heitmann also hasn't played since the opener because of a high ankle sprain. He will attempt to practice Wednesday for the first time since being injured during practice Sept. 11.

If Heitmann make progress through the week, he could start against the Seahawks. Versatile second-year reserve Kyle Kosier has been starting in Heitmann's place.

"There's no question about it, (Heitmann) gives us some plusses," Erickson said. "He's bigger and a little heavier rear end in there. He earned that starting position and has played really well there. If he is healthy and he's 100 percent, then he would move in there and be the starter."

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SHAW RELEASED: The 49ers waived second-year defensive tackle Josh Shaw on Monday, one week after he had returned to the team from serving a four-week suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

The league gave Shaw a one-week roster exemption to practice with the team last week. Erickson said the Niners would consider signing Shaw back to their practice squad.

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EXTRA POINTS: Defensive tackle Devone Claybrooks, signed by the Niners a week ago, attended his father's funeral in Virginia on Monday and is expected to return to the San Francisco Bay area Tuesday. Claybrooks left the Niners after just one practice session when his father died suddenly last Wednesday. ... Erickson gave his players the day off Monday, though several were at the team facility watching film, spending time with coaches and working out.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index