The rosters and depth charts are set for the San Francisco 49ers in their season opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Below is a season preview of the defense and what Niner fans should expect from the players. Click HERE to see the preview of the offense.
Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smith,
In Vic Fangio’s 3-4 base defense, he uses a lot of blitz’s on passing downs, sometimes using four or five rushers. The job of applying pressure and gobbling up blockers is the defense line, which allows the rushing linebackers on the outside to go in untouched. Anchoring down the best defensive line in the NFL is veteran Justin Smith who is entering his fifth season with the 49ers. Smith’s tremendous play last season helped rookie Aldon Smith earn his 14 sacks. Justin created rushing lanes for the linebackers by removing offensive linemen out of the way. There is no reason to think he will not have another great season earning him his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection.
What makes the 49ers defensive line the best in the NFL is not only Smith, but also Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga. Offenses have to prepare for all three linemen, which gives coordinators headaches because they basically have to choose who they want to focus on to stop from overtaking blockers. McDonald uses his quickness to get away from blockers to get after the quarterback. He improved in the preseason and we should continue to see him play at a top-level like last season. Sopoaga’s value to the 49ers defense is not found in his stats (68 tackles, 0 sacks) but in the way he uses his size and athleticism. He is also very mobile with his 330-pound frame and is capable of making big plays all on his own.
While the starters on the defensive line are tops in the NFL, the 49ers did not have much depth behind them should someone get injured. Of the four backups on the roster, Ricky Jean Francois is the only one who is not an undrafted free agent. Let’s hope the D-line starters can stay healthy, otherwise the 49ers will have a hole offenses will exploit this season.
Bold Prediction: Justin Smith will have his first double digit sack season in his career.
Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith
Without a doubt, Patrick Willis is the best linebacker in the NFL and he is the leader of the 49ers defense. Willis’ ability to quickly get after anyone who has the football with his amazing tackling skills, allows the defense to play a lot of man-to-man in the secondary, and rarely do they have to bring up the safeties into the front-seven to help defend. Willis will continue his stellar career in 2012 and if he is fully healthy, he could lead the NFL in tackles this season.
Willis’ fellow middle linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, made a name for himself as one of the top linebackers in the NFL last season recording 173 tackles. He led the 49ers in tackles by using his toughness and determination. Bowman is entering his third season with the 49ers and there is no reason to think why he won’t have another All-Pro season. What makes Bowman and Willis so valuable to the 49ers is their ability to stop the run and also their extraordinary coverage they bring to defense.
The outside linebackers are the most important part of the 49ers 3-4 base defense, as they are the fourth, and sometimes fifth, rushers going after the QB. Aldon Smith was the star last season of the outside linebackers leading the team with 14 sacks, all in his rookie year. Let’s not forget Smith was mainly used on passing downs only, but still recorded a record number of sacks for the 49ers. Smith was feared by all offenses last season. This season the 49ers have converted him into an every down linebacker, so he can instill fear on the opposing offense not just on passing downs, but also on rushing downs. Can Smith repeat his performance of 14 sacks from last season? Probably not, but he will get close it this season.
On the opposite side of the field is Ahmad Brooks, who became a full-time starter last season for the 49ers and set a career high with 7 sacks. With all of the talent the 49ers have at linebacker, he kind of gets forgotten about with Willis, Bowman and Smith making all of the headlines last season. After signing a six-year contract extension in the offseason, Brooks is ready to start making headlines as well.
Bold Prediction: Bowman will have a huge season and will be a finalist for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock
With the 49ers defense playing a lot of man-to-man, their cornerbacks need be outstanding in coverage. Tarell Brown and especially Carlos Rogers showed last season they are up to the task and there is no reason to think they will not carry that over into this season. Rogers earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season with six interceptions and the 49ers will need a repeat performance this season, as they will go up against the top-five passing offenses from last year.
As full time starter for the first time in his career last season, Brown had career highs with 46 tackles and 4 interceptions. With Brown’s strong work ethic, don’t anticipate him regressing this season as he is armed with great speed, quickness and tackling abilities.
The 49ers will use a lot of nickel and dime packages this season so we will see a lot of Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver on the field. Both showed in the preseason they are capable corners, but they are young with only two years of experience combined. Cox was out of the NFL last season and Culliver mostly played on special teams in his rookie season. This could be a huge concern for the 49ers if Rogers or Brown go down with an injury.
Bold Prediction: Tarell Brown will earn his first Pro Bowl selection with 8 interceptions.
Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Darcel McBath
Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are two of the hardest hitting safeties in the NFL and have the skills to make big, game changing plays in the secondary. Goldson is one of the most aggressive safeties in the NFL, which could lead to trouble trying to make plays. But he rarely makes a mistake by using his size, range and instincts to know when to go after the big hit or interception, and when to just make the tackle. Goldson’s aggressiveness earned him his first Pro Bowl last season as he produced 80 tackles and six interceptions. Goldson is determined to receive his first long-term contract this coming offseason after being franchise tagged by the 49ers the last two years. For this alone Goldson will have a monster season. Whether he re-signs with the 49ers after the season is a whole another question.
The secondary will need Whitner’s speed in order to stop the Packers, Lions, Saints, Patroits and Giants passing offenses this season. Whitner can make a mistake from time to time, but overall he will continue to be a great presence on the defense as the strong safety this season.
Bold Prediction: Goldson will best his 80 tackles and 6 interceptions this season, which will earn him a huge contract in the offseason. The problem is he will not re-sign with the 49ers.