Carter playing well despite diminishing returns

Updated: October 9, 2003, 3:09 PM ET
ESPN

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Andre Carter has no recollection of his last easy week with the San Francisco 49ers, and that's how he prefers things.

Every Sunday, Carter battles the NFL's biggest, toughest offensive linemen from his position on the right end of the 49ers' defensive line. His explosive pass-rushing abilities also attract double-teams more frequently than any of his teammates.

With such difficult assignments, Carter is behind the pace he set last season, when he led the 49ers with 12{ sacks. Thanks largely to coordinator Jim Mora's blitz-happy schemes designed to make the best use of an outstanding linebacking corps, San Francisco leads the NFL with 15 sacks -- but Carter has just 1{.

Still, Carter's coaches are praising his development in his third NFL season -- and Carter thinks he's getting better every week.

"You wish you could be up there with the sack numbers," Carter said. "But it's important to take care of your role and maybe open things up for your teammates. I would take the sack any day. Who wouldn't? But it's just as good if somebody else gets it."

Carter led the 49ers with 6{ sacks as a rookie two seasons ago. He has 19 sacks in his last 27 regular-season games -- and only four NFL players have more in that span.

With a lean, sculpted body and incredible first-step speed, Carter is a prototypical pass-rusher -- even if at 265 pounds he weighs less than many defensive ends. Last season, he seemed to be the heir apparent to Tennessee's Jevon Kearse as the next dominant pass-rushing end.

So far this fall, he hasn't attracted the highlight-reel attention given to Kearse, but Carter's coaches believe the comparison remains valid.

"I think he's being effective," Mora said. "When you're the right end in this league, you're going to face the best tackle they've got every week. Andre is doing an excellent job under those circumstances. I'm very happy with him."

Carter is getting even more attention from offensive lines this season following Chike Okeafor's offseason departure to Seattle as a free agent. John Engelberger has 2{ sacks as Okeafor's replacement, but doesn't have the speed to compare with Carter.

Linebacker Derek Smith leads the 49ers with 2{ sacks, and 10 players have contributed to sacks. In non-blitzing situations, San Francisco usually sticks with a four-man rush that has pleased Mora and coach Dennis Erickson.

"Sometimes our ends eat at people so our backers can become free," Erickson said. "That's the scheme of our thing. Last week (against Detroit), we got pressure on them with four guys. To me, it's more about pressure -- hurrying throws, stepping out of the pocket -- with the front four than it is anything else."

Though he's pleased with the defense's performance, Carter is working to improve several areas of his play -- and they all involve speed, his specialty.

"In the past few games, they've just got the ball off really fast," Carter said, referring to quarterbacks Gus Frerotte of Minnesota and Joey Harrington of Detroit. "There were a couple of times when I was just one step away. Just one step. It's just about getting that extra second to make the play, and it's not just me. It's the whole defensive line."

San Francisco's defensive line was considered a big question mark before the season, but it has been effective with a loose seven-man rotation. Veteran Chidi Ahanotu plays nearly as much as Engelberger at left end, while Travis Kirschke and Anthony Adams have capably replaced Dana Stubblefield at defensive tackle.

Carter's next daunting foe is Seattle's Walter Jones, another mammoth tackle intent on smothering his smaller foe. It's nothing new.

"Everybody is big in this league," Carter said with a grin. "I'm used to it now."

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INJURY UPDATE: Offensive lineman Eric Heitmann returned to practice Wednesday after missing the 49ers' last four games with a sprained ankle.

Heitmann, a second-year pro, is listed as probable for Sunday's game at Seattle. If he returns, San Francisco would have its projected first-string offensive line together for the first time all season.

"He actually moved around pretty well," Erickson said. "We'll kind of wait and see how it feels after pounding on it, but he went the whole time and moved around, what looked like to me, pretty good."

All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens was added to the injured list with another heel bruise. Owens was on the list for much of last season with a similar injury, and he missed the final two games of the regular season to recuperate for the playoffs.

Owens skipped practice Wednesday, but Erickson doesn't think it's serious yet. Owens is listed as probable.

"It's precautionary, really," Erickson said. "He'll be out there (Thursday)."

Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich is questionable with the effects of the concussion that knocked him out of last Sunday's game. Ulbrich collided with tough Detroit fullback Cory Schlesinger -- and had no memory of the play after the game.

Ulbrich could only grimace when watching tape of the hit.

"It looked like I almost got the best of him," Ulbrich said. "It was just the angle I hit him at, I guess."

Safety Zack Bronson (shoulder) and running back Garrison Hearst (leg/knee) also are listed as probable, along with offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Jeremy Newberry.

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