REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Coach Bill Parcells of the New York Giants says running back Joe Morris "is getting better and better and better."
The same could be said of the San Francisco 49ers' defensive unit that will take on Morris, who rushed for a club-record 1,336 yards this season, and 3,829-yard passer Phil Simms in Sunday's game which opens the National Football Conference playoffs. The two NFC wild-card teams meet at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Morris scored 21 touchdowns, all rushing, to lead the National Football League. The 49ers' defense allowed eight touchdowns, none rushing, in the final nine games of the regular season.
"The Giants' running game is much stronger," 49er Coach Bill Walsh says. "Last year they were running the ball very poorly, and now they're running exceptionally well.
"They're taking people apart with their running game."
No rushing attack has inflicted serious damage on the San Francisco defense since the seventh game of the season, when the Detroit Lions' 162 yards rushing helped them win, 23-21, leaving the 49ers with a 3-4 record. The 49ers allowed an average of 133 yards rushing through those first seven games, with five teams getting 115 yards or more.
In going 7-2 over their last nine games, the 49ers allowed opponents an average of 83 yards per game rushing. The only teams to top 100 yards were the Denver Broncos, with 121, and the Rams, with 114, in the two games that San Francisco lost.
"We're a healthier team. Everybody is available now," Walsh says in explaining the defensive turnaround against the run. "Michael Carter's returning, and John Harty, helped in the run defense, and the play of Michael Walter, Jim Fahnhorst and Todd Shell has been improving."
Carter, the 285-pound nose tackle who has been named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad, made his first start in the eighth game of the season, soon after coming off injured reserve. Harty came off the injured list later and has been seeing considerable duty at defensive end. Walter, Fahnhorst and Shell are young linebackers, all in their second years with the team.
The 49ers' first playoff game last season was a 21-10 victory over the Giants at Candlestick Park. New York got only 87 yards rushing, 46 by Morris in 17 carries, and a total of 260.
"They're a better team this year," Walsh says.