Punt returner Williams hopes to spark 49ers

Updated: October 17, 2003, 11:11 AM ET

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jimmy Williams figures he's the spark that could ignite the San Francisco 49ers this week and lift them from their stumbling 2-4 start.

The NFL's leading punt returner last year, Williams has seen his team lose three of their past five games by a combined total of five points. And he has yet to break a punt return longer than 16 yards or a kickoff return longer than 21 yards this season.

"I'm about to kill myself back there itching to break one," Williams said Thursday. "I'm anxious and itching."

So are the Niners.

The lack of production in the special-teams battle for field position has hurt San Francisco, which has struggled to move the ball offensively and score points. It doesn't figure to get easier Sunday when the 49ers host defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay and its defense studded with Pro Bowlers.

That's where Williams thinks he can make a difference.

Tampa Bay ranks second in the NFL in total offense and fourth in total defense. But the Buccaneers' kick coverage units have been vulnerable.

Tampa Bay is 26th in the NFL covering kickoffs and dead last in covering punts.

Williams led the league last year with a 16.8 yard punt return average. Currently, however, ranks 11th in the NFC with a 7.1 average.

"I'm always thinking that I can make a difference," Williams said. "If we can just get an edge, get an extra 10 yards here, 20 yards there, we're setting the offense up and putting ourselves in position to do things. Hopefully, we can have that kind of outcome this weekend."

Niners coach Dennis Erickson also is looking for more from the return game. But he said Williams is not one of the reasons San Francisco has been weak in that area.

"Our problem is not the guy returning it," Erickson said. "We have some other issues -- blocking -- that are creating the problems. We've been pretty darn good on special teams, but that's one area where we've struggled. If you're getting hit when you start, it's pretty hard."

O-LINE SHUFFLE: After starting last week's game in Seattle with their regular offensive line intact for the first time this season, the Niners are likely to be without starting left tackle Derrick Deese and starting left guard Eric Heitmann against Tampa Bay.

Both aggravated ankle injuries in the first quarter against the Seahawks and did not return.

Deese took part in portions of practice Thursday, but Erickson was not optimistic about his availability this week. Heitmann was downgraded to doubtful on Thursday's injury report and won't play Sunday, Erickson said.

"(Deese) took a few snaps, but I'd be very surprised if he suited up" Sunday, Erickson said. "It's not that he doesn't want to, but it's whether he can do it physically or not. He can only do so much. (Heitmann) won't play. He might not even be back next week."

That leaves rookie tackle Kwame Harris and second-year guard Kyle Kosier as the likely starters to face the imposing right side of Tampa Bay's defensive line. Harris will be matched up against right end Simeon Rice, who leads the NFL with eight sacks.

"They're really fast," said Harris, who has started four games in place of Deese. "I just have to keep my feet tighter, narrow down my steps and my focus. But you don't want to make too many adjustments for anybody."

STREETS SIDELINED: Wide receiver Tai Streets didn't practice for the second consecutive day owing to tendinitis in both his knees.

"I guess it's just being smart, just to make sure, that's what we've been doing this week," said Streets, who expects to return to practice Friday. "Maybe these two days will help it calm down a little bit."

Streets said he has been bothered by the problem most of the season, though he feels fine during games.

Streets led the Niners with five receptions for 77 yards last week at Seattle. He ranks 14th in the NFC with 24 receptions for 324 yards, and leads the team with three touchdown receptions. His 13.5-yard average per reception is the best among San Francisco receivers with more than one catch.

EXTRA POINTS: Left cornerback Ahmed Plummer tweaked his right knee at the beginning of practice and watched the rest of the session with it heavily bandaged. ... Defensive tackle Anthony Adams and receiver/kick returner Arnaz Battle, who both have toe problems, were downgraded to questionable for Sunday's game. ... Right guard Ron Stone was given the day off to rest his injured right hand.

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