FEW MEN currently playing football are harder to tackle than Frank Gore.

The Eagles on Sunday night couldn't tackle their own shadows. They got gashed by the moribund Giants in a 512-yard travesty - the word of the day - that required a punt return and a bomb to salvage a win for the Birds.

It left first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott insisting that his side of the ball wasn't that bad.

It might have been the best defense played in the Meadowlands that night.

"We're a young defense, and he's a young coordinator," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said yesterday. "We've got to do a better job of helping him along."

That might fly, except that Sunday night's performance was just a series of the worst moments of what have been several questionable moments this season, Trotter said.

"Everybody's trying to make 'kill shots,' " said Trotter.

He is a devotee of the hit-the-legs-and-wrap-'em-up school of tackling who is mystified at the current trend for defenders who try to dislodge ball and head with their full-speed, shoulder-first flights of aggression.

Trotter said he and 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes recently shared their disgust at the highlight-reel tackling.

"It's a travesty, the way these guys are trying to make shoulder hits," Trotter said.

If they repeat that performance when Gore and the 49ers visit Sunday, their string of not allowing a 100-yard rusher for 23 straight games surely will end. Bullish rookie receiver Michael Crabtree will roll.

Gore, a lone runner in a pass-heavy offense, rolled for 167 yards on 25 carries against the Cardinals on Monday night. He crushed the Seahawks in Week 2, with 207 yards on just 16 carries.

He can change a game.

So can Crabtree. A rare combination of strength and balance, Crabtree, 6-1 and 214 solid pounds, held out for the first five games of the season. He has averaged about five catches and 60 yards per game, almost 13 yards per catch - remarkable numbers for any receiver, much less one who missed his first training camp.

Little wonder, then, why the Eagles are insistent that, with the Broncos and Cowboys looming, they are not looking past the Niners, who shined Monday night in an upset win over Arizona.

"They are playing at a high level," said safety Quintin Mikell. "It's not a 'trap' game for us, at all."

The game against the Giants reverberates so much because the Eagles' defense was supposed to be so much better.

Irreplaceable nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson returned after a 4-week suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. They also got back weakside linebacker Akeem Jordan, whose breakout season was interrupted for a month after he hyperextended his knee.

Neither was remarkable in his return.

Jordan clearly looked a half-step slow, in part, no doubt, because he did not play the weakside position. Will Witherspoon has replaced him there. Jordan helped out at middle linebacker - a position he never played before in a 4-3 defense - and played in some specialty packages.

"Getting more reps at the position helps you get comfortable," Jordan allowed. "You either get better or you get worse. Hopefully, I'm getting better . . . You're going to make mistakes, even if you know [what you're doing]."

Returning to full-speed action only compounded the challenge for Jordan, considering his recovery process includes becoming reacclimated with change of direction.

"The angles and stuff switch real quick," Jordan said.

Hanson, meanwhile, was part of a pass defense that surrendered 379 passing yards and three touchdowns, its worst performance of the season by almost 100 yards.

No one blamed Hanson, who, Eagles coach Andy Reid said, understandably grew fatigued as the game progressed.

McDermott reiterated this week to his players what he said immediately after Sunday's debacle: One bad game doesn't make it a bad defense.

Which is true. The defense remains a top-10 unit, fifth against the pass and fifth in third-down conversions - all categories in which, at times, it has struggled.

Still, it was a travesty in the Meadowlands.

It was one that could repeat.

Look us over

The 49ers might have shocked the Cardinals on Monday night, and they might have surprised the unwashed football fan tuning in to see what Mike Singletary and his charges might do, but the Niners expected nothing less.

"Perceptionwise, I think it opened up a lot of eyes," said linebacker Takeo Spikes after the 24-9 win, in which the Niners forced seven turnovers.

"Before Monday night, I think a lot people just saw us as an OK defense," Spikes said. "I think that was because of a lack of national exposure. After Monday, I think people really see what we're capable of doing. Those are things we've done the entire season."

They are things Singletary expects to be done consistently, especially as the young Niners, now 6-7, mature.

"It's always good, when you have a chance, for your team to have some exposure, particularly when you think you have something special," Singletary said.