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Nolan faces old boss Billick when Ravens visit Niners

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Nolan could have relaxed. The New York Jets were still paying him in January 2001, and their former defensive coordinator could have calmly watched the playoffs at home after 14 straight years of the NFL grind.

Instead, Nolan called Brian Billick one week before the Baltimore Ravens played in the Super Bowl to campaign for a job.

"Look, I've got to prepare for this game," Billick said, in Nolan's recollection. "But after the game, I might have some changes. I'd like to talk to you."

Now that Nolan has gone on to fortune and fame -- for his snappy sideline suits, anyway -- with the San Francisco 49ers, he still doesn't feel he was a bit audacious on that initial call to Billick.

"What the heck? He's got his issues, I've got mine," the Niners coach said.

Nolan's boldness paid off, although the lifelong defensive coach ended up with a one-season gig as the receivers coach for the defending league champions.

"It was kind of unconventional, but I always coveted having Mike on the staff," Billick said. "I thought how great it would be to have someone of Mike's defensive background sitting in your offensive meetings every day, giving observations of what a defense might see."

Nolan became the Ravens' defensive coordinator one year later, and he eventually turned his partnership with Billick into the top job with the San Francisco 49ers (2-2). The Niners host the Ravens (2-2) on Sunday in a game rich with connections and rivalries, both friendly (Ed Reed vs. Frank Gore) and not-so-friendly (Trent Dilfer vs. Billick).

Nolan's four years with Billick provided a wealth of information for an aspiring head coach. He learned management skills and coaching theory, and he inherited a bit of Billick's unconventional streak in game-planning -- all assets Nolan has used to put the 49ers back on the road to respectability.

"You look at what they've done in Baltimore, and it's a really solid organization," said 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary, who left the Ravens along with Nolan. "I know Mike has tried to install over here a lot of what they've done out there. They're a great example to use."

But Nolan and Singletary have spent the past week worrying about how to compete against Baltimore's annually dominant defense with an offense that's injury-plagued and ineffective throughout San Francisco's .500 start.

Quarterback Alex Smith will miss the game after separating his shoulder last week, while tight end Vernon Davis (knee) and left tackle Jonas Jennings (personal matters) also are out. The 49ers managed the fewest yards per game in the NFL over the first four weeks, with an underperforming offensive line and a weak passing game.

Dilfer will make his first start for the 49ers against the team he led to that Super Bowl victory, only to be jettisoned a few months later by Billick. The veteran quarterback has fond memories of the Ravens' 11-1 run to the championship in the games Dilfer started.

"We usually had a 10-point lead there, with maybe the greatest defense in the history of football," Dilfer said.

Dilfer doesn't have fond memories of Billick, however. He has taken multiple verbal shots at the Baltimore coach in the years since his abrupt departure, though Dilfer says he plans to apologize to Billick for his unprofessionalism before the game.

"I started against them when I was in Cleveland, and a lot was made out of it," Dilfer said. "I probably put a lot of extra pressure on myself for that game. I'm glad that I've had that experience, because it's been a long time since I was there. There's very few of the same faces that were there."

The defense that Nolan and Singletary left behind in Baltimore remains one of the NFL's most dominant institutions despite its middle-of-the-road statistics in September. Just as the Ravens are built around Ray Lewis, the 49ers have installed promising rookie Patrick Willis at the center of their scheme.

Though Lewis has been vocal in his distaste for a few changes to the Ravens' scheme this season, the 49ers still fear what they're facing.

"Coach Nolan knows what we do for the most part," said Reed, who spent his first three NFL seasons under Nolan's tutelage. "This is going to be an execution game. He knows what we do, and we know what they do as far as defense goes. The personnel is still pretty much the same here."

With Smith and Davis out, the Baltimore defense will be free to key on defending NFC rushing champion Frank Gore, who has just 217 yards rushing in the 49ers' first four games. Gore is frustrated with his lack of production behind an inconsistent offensive line.

That's good news for Reed, the Pro Bowl safety who has been looking forward to facing Gore, his fellow University of Miami player and close friend.

"I told him he's the best back I've ever seen, and I mean that," Reed said. "Frank is like a brother to me. ... I have a little bit more experience. Frank is my man, but he knows I'll be over somewhere lurking close to him. I can't let him break."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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