Freeman hopes for 2nd helpings

But 49ers secondary eager not to repeat earlier TD feast by Packers WR

NFC wild-card preview

January 03, 1999|By SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

Green Bay receiver Antonio Freeman suffered a hairline jaw fracture last month that briefly had him drinking his dinners through a straw.

Today, he could be feasting on the 49ers.

Freeman picked San Francisco apart Nov. 1, blowing past right cornerback Marquez Pope to score on an 80-yard reception on the first play, then torching Pope again with a 62-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Freeman, a Baltimore native who played at Poly, caught seven passes for a career-high 193 yards in the Packers' 36-22 victory.

"We kind of lost a little focus on Antonio Freeman and how good he really was," said safety Tim McDonald, part of a secondary unable to stop the quick slants to Freeman (four catches for 107 yards) in last season's NFC title game. "This time, we want to make sure that we keep our eye on that guy and not let him make all the big plays, the bone-crunching plays that have been killing us."

Anyone who lines up at right cornerback for the 49ers is a marked man. Although rookie R. W. McQuarters has started the past seven games there, the 49ers have dropped hints they might start Pope. Either way, Packers quarterback Brett Favre will send spiral after spiral whizzing that direction.

McQuarters is bracing for that.

"I know they're going to throw at me," he said. "Everybody else has since I've been in. I've just got to go out there and hold my own."

Pope said he feels completely recovered from the back and ankle injuries that have hampered him for most of the season. (His back problems were painfully evident when Freeman glided past him for the 62-yard touchdown.) He is tired of hearing about Freeman.

"If he wants to believe he is the ultimate, then we'll see how he plays Sunday," Pope said. "The thing is, we've faced him numerous times. I recall my first year here, he didn't really do anything. I recall the Monday night game that we played he didn't do anything. For him to woof now well, I guess every dog has his day."

The 49ers have not had a consistent cornerback tandem since Deion Sanders and Eric Davis roamed the secondary in 1994. Sanders signed with Dallas in 1995, and Davis left for Carolina the next season. What followed were suspect cornerback couplings of Pope with Tyronne Drakeford, Rod Woodson and Antonio Langham.

Pope was solid -- sometimes better than solid -- but missed 11 games last season because of a foot injury, and this year twisted his back in an Aug. 15 exhibition game against Seattle and did not return until Week 7.

The real surprise has been Darnell Walker, signed last season with the thought he would play in nickel and dime packages. He has turned out to be the team's steadiest corner and starts on the left side.

Adjusting to all the changes has not been easy for the secondary's two cornerstones, safeties McDonald and Merton Hanks, both of whom were starters on the '94 team.

"We haven't had the same set of corners two years in a row for a while," Hanks said. "It would be nice. It would have been really nice if we could have kept that 1994 secondary together, but that's another story."

Because of the shoddy play of Langham and the poor health of Pope, the 49ers had to thrust first-round pick McQuarters into action sooner than they had hoped. So far, they are pleased with his progress.

Although his teammates say he doesn't play like a rookie, McQuarters still makes rookie mistakes. During a TV interview in the exhibition season, he let it slip that his nickname at Oklahoma State was "The Franchise."

Coach Steve Mariucci got ahold of that video clip, spliced it into a highlight-reel montage and showed it to the rest of the team. Ever since, McQuarters has taken a ribbing from his teammates.

"If he comes here as a first-round pick and he slips up like that," guard Kevin Gogan said, "I think it's a good idea to give him a little bit of trouble about it."

McQuarters laughs off the teasing. Getting roasted doesn't bother him; getting burned does.

Pub Date: 1/03/99

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