49ers 2009 Season Preview: D-linemen, Linebackers Edition

The young and talented 49ers defense in 2009 will be entering its third year under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.  Led by Patrick Willis and Nate Clements the defense is developing into a force as they perfect the mistakes they have made while building on the success they have had under coach Manusky.  This is what happens to a unit when they have a consistent coordinator no matter which side of the football they play on.  Mike Singletary is a defensive minded coach and his style of physical, smash mouth football will also benefit the D who has a combination of young proven and up incoming starters with a healthy mix of veterans leading the way.  The permanent switch to the 3-4 schemes will make the defense more comfortable this year.  The lack of a pass rush is a huge question mark but you can expect big things from the defense this year.


Left DE Isaac Sopoaga:  As much as we need a pass rush he is not on the line to pressure.  His four total sacks in four seasons is an indicator but Sopoaga’s job is to hold up the line while the other D-linemen put pressure along with the linebackers.  The Steelers D-line is great at allowing pressure to come from unexpected angles and somebody has to plug up the line. Sopoaga is that man.

NT Aubrayo Franklin:  Unless your name is Albert Haynesworth the nose tackle position does not get a lot of hype.  Getting a pass rush out of Franklin will most likely not happen, I am sensing a pattern here, but he is great at stopping the run.  Like Sopoaga he will be plugging the holes.

Right DE Justin Smith:  Finally, here is our pass rush guy.  One out of three D-linemen isn’t bad but right?  Oh, yeah we have no pass rush.  That was what Smith was brought in to do at six years $45 million, including $20 million in guarantees.  So far that has bought us seven sacks and 50 tackles.  Smith is good at putting the pressure on the QB but at that price tag we need more sacks out of the veteran this year.  Especially if he is all we have to rely on for sacks from the line.


Left Outside LB Manny Lawson:  Much of the 3-4 pass rush will come from the outside LB’s and with Lawson’s speed and athletic ability he will break out this year after having issues with injuries early in his career.  Lawson was a defensive lineman while at North Carolina State so the pass rushing instincts are there.  Coming off his best season last year, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 blocked kicks, expect him to continue building on his stats and confidence.  If we don’t get a pass rush out of Lawson, we won’t have one at all this year.

Middle Left LB Patrick Willis:  This is the only man opposing offensive coordinators fear.  The 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year is the 49ers D and he leads by example.  His numbers two years in the NFL are amazing: 315 tackles, 244 of them solo, 5 sacks and 15 pass deflections.  Nothing more needs to be said about him.  Just watch in awe.

Right Outside LB Parys Haralson:  He led the 49ers with eight sacks last year and he will be counted on again this year pairing up with Lawson to be the fourth pass rusher coming from the outside.  Haralson signed a new contract that will keep him with the Red and Gold until 2013 so we have to demand another repeat in sacks like last year.  He will need to get at least ten sacks if the 49ers want to have an effective pass rush running the 3-4 scheme.

Right Inside LB Takeo Spikes:  The Bills and Eagles thought Spikes was past his prime but after ten years in the NFL he is showing he still has what it takes to make plays.  Last year he ranked 2nd on team with 122 tackles and was tied 1st on the team with 3 INTs and 2 forced fumbles.  Four games into the season he took over as a starter.  Spikes has not disappointed since then and with a great training camp he and Willis will lead the defense installing Singletary’s wear-you-down style of play.

Key Reserves:

Left DE Kentwan Balmer:  The 2008 second round pick is entering the season as a reserve but he will get plenty of playing time to convince the coaching staff to insert him as a starter.

Right DE Ray McDonald:  McDonald is entering his third season and he showed last year he can put pressure on the QB. With that being a hot commodity on the defense this year his playing time will rise.

Right Inside LB Scott McKillop:  Drafted in the 5th round of the draft McKillop had a productive training camp and preseason but his playing time will be limited unless an injury takes out one of the starters.  Hopefully we will see him but not in that capacity.  Whenever he does start he will be force for the defense.

Five Keys to Success

1.  Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.  Without it the defense will take two steps backwards for every step of progress they make.

2.  No matter how unsuccessful the pass rush might be this year, if Patrick Willis is on the field we have a chance.  If something happens to him, goodbye season.

3.  Someone needs to step up in the pass rush.  Really, the pass rush again? Well that is the job of the D-linemen and linebackers and this is the biggest question mark we have.  So who will it be…

4.  The success of the 3-4 schemes will make or break the D this year.  It will most likely make them meaning they will be a top ten defensive unit in the NFL this year.  I am assuming someone steps up in the pass rush but the 49ers are good at defending the run and they will tested this year facing off against Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner and Maurice Jones-Drew.

5.  Pass rush.

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