49ers 2009 Season Preview: Secondary, Special Teams Edition

Secondary:

The 49ers secondary were beat deep down the field many times last year and they will have to improve on their lack of interceptions.  If the defensive backs can get help from the D-linemen by pressuring the quarterback more often an increase in broken up passes and interceptions will happen while getting beat on a long pass will decrease.

CB Nate Clements:  The durable veteran is entering his third season with the Niners and Clements great tackling skills and his ability to match up against the best receivers in the NFL makes the 49ers secondary respectable.  But Clements is only one man and the rest of the secondary will need to produce for the 49ers to win games on defense.

CB Shawntae Spencer:  After sustaining a torn ACL last season that ended with him being placed on injured reserve Spencer went into training camp determined to get his starting job back after Walt Harris supplanted him the last two years.  Ironically Harris suffered a torn ACL during OTA’s which opened the door for Spencer to become the starter again.  Shortly after Harris’ injury the Niners signed Dre’ Bly and the prospect of Spencer starting diminished.  When you are under the radar the big plays you make are more noticeable to the coaches because you come out of nowhere and the coaches do not expect that.  Let’s hope his knee injury can hold up for a whole season and that it does not cause him to let the receiver run by him.

Strong Safety Michael Lewis:  Two concussions in August make him uncertain for week 1.  Lewis is a solid safety and was third on the team last year in tackles racking up 118.  Concussions are serious injuries and with Lewis being a hard hitter it is uncertain when he will play this season.  We need him back as soon as possible.

Free Safety Dashon Goldson:  The third year pro replaced former starter Mark Roman by having a strong training camp and playing well in the preseason.  Goldson is a known hard hitter and his speed and instincts will allow him to make plenty of plays this season.  Goldson is ready to break out this year.

Key Reserves:

CB Dre’ Bly:  When the 49ers signed Bly in the off-season to replace the injured Walt Harris I automatically assumed he would be the starter.  The 11 year veteran showed in training camp he still has what it takes to cover quick receivers but that was not enough to earn a starting job.  Bly’s playing time will come mostly in the Nickel package as he will be the first corner off the bench because he excels at covering receivers down the field.  His 40 interceptions in ten seasons is impressive and if he can keep up the way he has been playing during his career Bly could be starting at cornerback at some point in the season.

CB Tarell Brown:  He was competing for Harris’ starting job along with Bly but he did not have an impressive training camp or preseason.  Brown’s contribution to the D this year will be in the Nickel package.  Bly will get the first look in the Nickel package so Brown’s playing will be limited unless someone gets injured.

Strong Safety Reggie Smith:  With starter Michael Lewis sustaining two concussions in the preseason his status for the start of the season is questionable.  Enter Smith.  He only has one year of experience and played in only three games last year so he is a question mark.  He is a versatile player who can also play the corner position but I am hoping Lewis will be able to come back and play in week 1.  Relying on a player who has only three games of experience makes me uneasy.

Special Teams:

The 49ers have one of the best special teams units in the NFL.  Led by coach Al Everest the special teams will put the 49ers in position to make plays on both sides of the football.  Joe Nedney is still automatic but his ability to make field goals 40 yards or longer has been an issue.  But when you have a Pro-Bowl punter in Andy Lee, who will try to pin down the opposing offense inside the 20 yard line and Pro-Bowl return man in Allen Rossum who will try to get the 49ers great field position, the special teams unit will be counted on again this year to give the 49ers offense and defense some help.

Kicker Joe Nedney:  He is getting older and has lost some range but Nedney is a dependable kicker who can score three points in pressure situations.  He does confuse me sometimes like last year against the Seahawks in week 2 he missed a 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation to win the game, but then he won the game with 40-yard field goal in overtime.  He will miss some kicks but he is still considered one of the better kickers in the league.

Punter Andy Lee:  The 2007 Pro-Bowl and All-Pro punter put up great numbers last year by setting a career-high and Niners single-season record with a 47.8 gross average on punts, breaking his own previous record of 47.3 avg. in 2007.  He also had a career-long punt of 82 yards against the Patriots last year.  Like in years past Lee will make up for what the offense cannot accomplish by pinning opponents deep in their own territory.

Kick/Punt Returner Allen Rossum:  Last year Rossum had career high averages in kick-off returns (26.8 yards) and punt returns (14.9 yards) and we should expect more of the same from the specialist.  Getting good field position before every drive will help the 49ers offense especially Shaun Hill in that they will not have to go many yards for a score.

Five Keys to Success:

1.  Safety Michael Lewis needs to stay healthy if the 49ers secondary wants to improve on the multiple times they were beat deep down the field last year.  He has had two concussions in a month and the 49ers might have to rely on Reggie Smith for much of the season if precaution is taken with Lewis’ head injury.  The opponents D will exploit Smith.

2.  Nate the Great needs to be Nate the Great.  He was outstanding while on the Bills which is why the 49ers signed him to a big contract.  He has done a decent job the two years on the roster but we need to see more out of Clements this year.

3.  Joe Nedney will have plenty of opportunities to make game-tying or game winning field goals.  He needs to capitalize where the 49ers offense falters.

4.  If punter Andy Lee can continue being one of the best punters in the league the 49ers will be in good shape each game.  He will give the 49ers defense plenty of chances to make big plays.

5.  We are not sure how effective Dashon Goldson, making his first career start in week 1, and Shawntae Spencer, starting for the first time in two years, will be.  A lot will be riding on the two starters but with Goldson’s tackling and hitting abilities and with Spencer determined to show he still has what it takes to make plays I think both will be reliable this season.  They know there are players waiting on the bench eager to take over the starting job.

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