"Fred Dean creates an atmosphere of distress on the other team." --Bill Walsh, 49ers coach

Shortly after Fred Dean arrived from the Chargers in early October and began a one-man assault on quarterbacks, San Franciscans began calling their new tackling heroes The Dean-Fense. That was fine with him, and appropriate for a man judged the best defensive player in the NFL this season by people who would not dare say that to Randy White or Joe Klecko.

But The Dean Fence is an even better tribute to his ability, his strength and sense of mean. During a high school game in the region of Louisiana from which came such as Terry Bradshaw, Sammy White, Bert Jones and lots of other NFL roughnecks, Fred Dean once threw a quarterback under a fence.

Chased him, caught him and chucked him. Tossed the little guy so far out of bounds he rolled under a fence. What came to be known as The Dean Fence around Ruston, La.

Dean said today he did it.

You challenge him.

Truth be known, Dean does not seem all that awesome in T-shirt and slacks and sitting at a table bragging on himself before this week's Super Hype evolves into the Super Bowl Sunday. There are lots of ends larger than his 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds; none reaches a quarterback quicker, as the Bengals' Ken Anderson often reminds Anthony Munoz.

If the 49er-Bengal matchup does not quite leave us limp with anticipation, the Dean-Munoz collision is genuinely intriguing. Dean hassles a passer as well as anyone; the Bengals are a passing team and the man standing between him and Anderson, Munoz, is only slightly smaller than a GM plant.

Munoz is 6-6 and 280, a second-year offensive left tackle who gave his coach both pain and inspiration when they got acquainted on the field. Both were rookies at the time, Forrest Gregg as the Bengals' coach and Munoz as the recent first-round draft choice.

Forrest had been a tree, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle for the Packers, a player Vince Lombardi called the best he ever coached. Still in decent shape, he decided to break this Trojan horse himself, go at him one on one. He did not want to embarrass Munoz but leave him humble enough to be eager for the master's wisdom.

"I gave him a couple easy moves," said Gregg. "Then I gave him a hard inside move and started to go outside (a maneuver Dean might try Sunday). He swatted me with one big paw and knocked me flat on my can. Then his eyes got big and nervous, and he kept saying: 'I'm sorry, Coach. I'm sorry.'

"I picked myself up and said: 'That's all right, Anthony. You just keep doing what you're doing.' "

What Anthony does best is drive-block straight ahead for the fullback, Pete Johnson. A 280-pound escort for a 249-pound runner, a pile driver leading a jackhammer, can turn a Dean into cole slaw. Except Dean usually only plays on obvious passing downs; some luckless teammate gets to take most of the Munoz-Johnson knockout punches.

Although Dean is close to peerless at his specialty, his part-time status makes those defender-of-the-year honors suspect. White goes the distance. But the 49ers surely would not be a game away from being the NFL's best team without Dean. In 11 games, he mustered 12 sacks.

After mauling the Cowboys during a first-appearance rout, three-time all-pro Dean said: "I felt I had to prove myself (again); It's time to turn on the afterburners."

He prefers to play every down, but admits his pass-rush specialty has advantages.

"You don't have to think about anything," he said. "Just get the quarterback. I'd like to play all the time, because by the fourth quarter you know what the guy across from you is trying to do." Dean's size makes him vulnerable to runs; he must eat more than regularly to maintain 230 pounds. Once this year, he admitted, his weight was as low at 215.

"I'll use my quickness against his strength," Dean said of his meeting with Munoz. "I'll try to use his weight against him, keep him off balance."

They met three weeks from the end of the season, in Cincinnati. Dean had a sack and his team won, 21-3.

"I think he's susceptible to trap blocks and misdirection," Munoz said of Dean, suggesting the Bengals will run on Dean when they need either a long run or medium-range pass. "He's really aggressive, but sometimes he overruns the play."

In that earlier game, Munoz was so conscious of Dean that he sometimes lined up, linebacker-like, in a two-point stance instead of the usual one-hand-on-the-turf technique. And he kept as far off Dean before the snap as the law allows, to cut down his angle to Anderson.

"Won't be doing that Sunday," Munoz said. "I was tipping the plays too much."

Gregg wanted to tip his coaching hand from the beginning with the Bengals.

"I think they (the players) were all half-scared of me when I came there," he said, "because they'd heard so many stories about what a brute I was. They were a little wide-eyed. And I've tried not to disappoint 'em."