49ers Season Preview: Defense
LDT: Isaac Sopoaga
NT: Aubrayo Franklin
RDT: Justin Smith
Reserves: Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois, Demetric Evan.
The 49ers defense ranked 15th overall in the NFL last season. The D ranked 21st in passing and sixth against the rush. The defensive line was at fault for being ranked in the bottom of the NFL against the pass because they could generate a rush without a blitzing linebacker or a corner/safety. This left the secondary exposed who also shared the blame for giving up big passing plays. The defense made up for their weak pass defense by being studs against the rush. And this was in part because of the defensive line. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin had a career year last season which lead to him wanting a new contract and sitting out almost all of the preseason. Franklin was a big reason for the D’s success against the run recording career highs in tackles (88), tackles for a loss (8.5), sacks (2) and INTs (1). Franklin is good enough to miss almost all of the preseason and still be effective in the regular season.
Age-less wonder and right D-lineman Justin Smith has proved at 30 years old he is not slowing down. Smith is gifted with the ability to explode off the line and beat the offensive tackle to pressure the quarterback. Smith was the best D-lineman in pass rushing on the roster last season as he tied for second on the team with six sacks. He will need to increase his sack total this season if the 49ers are going to get better against the pass. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season with a team-high 78 quarterback pressures and 52 quarterback hits. Smith will put up similar numbers this season and should earn his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. Smith has a streak of 139 consecutive starts.
Left defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga size and strength (he works out with 200-pound dumbbells) is perfect for the 49ers 3-4 defense base. Sopoaga started all 16 games last year, a first in his career, and had 69 tackles. He will rotate with backup Ray McDonald this season but will get the majority of the snaps. Sopoaga needs to be quicker off the line this season to give Smith some help with the pass rush.
With McDonald rotating with Sopoaga don’t expect RDT Demetric Evan to do the same with Smith. He will get his playing time but not as much as McDonald. Keep an eye on Ricky Jean Francois this season. With Franklin missing the preseason Francois took advantage of working with the first-team defense and expanded his knowledge and experience. The 49ers will showcase Francois throughout the season as he may become the starter at nose tackle next year if Franklin signs elsewhere. Francois is developing into a great nose tackle.
OLB: Manny Lawson
MLB: Patrick Willis
MLB: Takeo Spikes
OLB: Parys Haralson
Reserves: Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy and Diyral Briggs.
The linebackers and the defense is lead by the best LB in the NFL, Patrick Willis. Every time Willis steps on the field he puts fear in the offense. Last season Willis led the NFL in tackles and set career highs in sacks and INTs earning a third Pro Bowl appearance. In his three-year career Willis has played so well it will be hard for him to top last season. It is not that his production will go down but that he set the bar high last season. Nevertheless Willis will be a freak this season and will be an important part of the defenses success.
OLB Manny Lawson struggled in his first three seasons switching from defensive end, which he played in college, to outside linebacker. Lawson finally had his breakout season last year recording a career-high 6.5 sacks. Lawson will use his athleticism this season to not get beat on passing plays and to give a solid outside rush on the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky blitzed a lot during the preseason and used Lawson is many of the rushes. Lawson finally looks comfortable in his role as the starting outside linebacker and will shine this season.
MLB Takeo Spikes gets lost in the conversation when talking about the 49ers defense. Much of the attention is on Willis however Spikes is worthy of being talked about on the same-level as Willis. On any other team Spikes would Willis. He will be an integral part of the blitz this season and could top his 2009 numbers of 95 tackles and four sacks.
Parys Haralson had a good season last year with five sacks and 73 tackles. If Haralson can up his game to the level of Willis and Lawson the 49ers linebackers will be the best in the NFL. Haralson will be pivotal to the D’s success this season.
The biggest question mark with the reserves is MLB Ahmad Brooks who has been out with a lacerated kidney since early August. The only backup to Willis is Brooks. So if Willis goes down I am not sure who would step in. Brooks had a great year last season as a pass-rushing outside linebacker with a career-high six sacks and four forced fumbles. Four of the sacks were in the final four games and Brooks was pushing Haralson for the starting job until he lacerated kidney. He suffered the injury during a training camp drill when a blocking sled hit him in his side. Brooks excelled at rushing as the OLB however with the depth chart short at middle linebacker Brooks will be backing up Willis this season. He is expected to back by week two at the earliest.
NaVorro Bowman and Travis LaBoy are two rising starts on the defense. Rookie Bowman had a great preseason and is learning the MLB position from Willis and Spikes. He will only play this season to rest the two starters but when he does get in the game he will amaze you with his speed and big hitting abilities. LaBoy did not make a team last season but with his tremendous speed he is a great pass rusher and should help the starters get to the quarterback. He had a great preseason even though he missed time due to injury so it will be interesting to see if he plays at the same level in the regular season.
LCB: Shawntae Spencer
RCB: Nate Clements
SS: Michael Lewis
FS: Dashon Goldson
Reserves: Tarell Brown, Phillip Adams, Will James, Tramaine Brock, Taylor Mays, Reggie Smith and Curtis Taylor.
With how much the 49ers blitzed in the preseason which should carry over to the regular season the only way the secondary will not get beat deep like last season is if they play tighter coverage, get their hands on receivers right after the snap and be more aggressive. Easier said than done. The secondary is the weakest part of the defense and in order for them to better this season there will need to be more press coverage. The secondary will also need to improve their communication as that was one of the reasons why they got beat deep often.
There is really no clear leader in the secondary but if I had to pick one it would be LCB Shawntae Spencer. RCB Nate Clements is suppose to fill that role but with the way receivers picked him apart last season and his benching mid-way through the season I am surprised he still has the starting job. Spencer has quietly become the 49ers best corner on the team after becoming a playmaker in the secondary. If Clements can stay healthy he might regain his old form but I am not counting on that. Clements has a lot to prove this year as he could be in danger of losing his starting job at some point like last season.
Strong safety Michael Lewis is one of the league’s most imposing defensive backs with his physical play, size and strength. Backup Taylor Mays will get his playing time but he won’t unseat Lewis as the starter, at least not this year. With his comparisons to former Niner legend Ronnie Lott expect big things from Mays in the future.
Last season free safety Dashon Goldson showed he is playmaker in his first full season as a starter. However when he plays bad, he plays really bad. Take for example the Falcons game last season. Goldson was burned by Falcons WR Roddy White for 210 receiving yards and a 90 yard play where he outran Goldson and the rest of the secondary. Teams took notice and continued to try to beat Goldson with speedy receivers but he did not suffer through another game like the Falcons game. I am not sure if Goldson worked on his speed this year, he is around the same weight he was last year, but with the coach Manusky using more press coverage this should take away the advantage of speedy receivers going up against the Goldson.
With the offense improving the defense will feel the effects of not being on the field for most of the time like past seasons. The defense will get to rest as the offense sustains long drives. The defense is full of talented players even the backups. This season anything less than a top-ten ranking in overall defense and in the top-15 in pass and rush defense will be a failure.