49ers Need to Regain Their Swagger
February 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM
By Brett Pahler
Marked by two years of underachieving and almost a decade of porous defense, the very nature of what it means to be a 49er has come into question. Once a proud organization, Donahue has almost single-handedly driven it to its current state; cutting ties to our rich past and bringing in a man who has a history of leaving programs in shambles: Dennis Erickson.
The closest thing to swagger the 49ers have had the last two years has been Erickson pacing the sidelines with defeatist facial expressions and posture, as if ready to throw his red flag in protest of his own game-plans. That's all about to change. When opposing coaches look across the field at Mike Nolan, they're not going to see an exasperated individual who looks like he can't find his car keys; they're going to see the wry smile of a coach who has everything under control and an ace up his sleeve to boot.
The quickest way to establish a team swagger and win ball games is with a dominating defense. In fact, given that defense is a foreign concept in the NFC, a stifling defense might carry a mediocre offense into the NFC title game. Resurrecting the unit should not take as long as we might think. It is by and large the same unit that carried us through 12-4 and 10-6 seasons several years ago. It rated slightly above average during the Mora years before Willy Robinson reduced it to smithereens, and is by no means a unit devoid of talent, like the Chiefs.
There may be some attractive receivers who will be difficult to pass up in the draft, but if the 49ers want to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later, they should select cornerback Adam Jones from West Virginia. At that point, the 49ers would have their coveted shut-down corner that's aggressive in run support. Plummer instantly becomes one of the best number two corners in the game. Spencer becomes an above average nickel. Rumph becomes a hard-hitting safety that de-cleats anyone coming over the middle and can keep up with most receivers.
The switch to the 3-4 coincides nicely with this year's draft class, which contains several undersized defensive ends/rush linebackers who would make perfect pass-rushing complements to Julian Peterson at right outside linebacker. Of the players likely to be available with the 33rd pick, Notre Dame's all-time sack leader Justin Tuck, a vastly undersized defensive end in college, looks the most promising. Furthermore, keep an eye on Virginia linebacker Daryl Blackstock, who has a rare first step and a knack for getting to the quarterback. Both players are borderline first round prospects.
Regardless of whether or not the 49ers made a legitimate attempt to employ the 3-4 last pre-season, the fact remains that Carter and Engelberger barely hold up in the 4-3. Sliding Bryant Young out to left end solves one problem, but the 49ers will need to acquire at least one mammoth defensive end this off-season. Spending the 65th pick in the draft on Chris Canty, also from Virginia, would provide the 49ers with a 6'7" 290 pound fluid athlete who can hold the point of attack and get into the backfield. His injury history is cause for concern, but he would be a steal in the third round.
Adding a shutdown corner, a relentless pass-rusher, and more quality depth along the defensive line would go a long way towards firming up a defense that typically sits back and reacts to the offense. In fact, it just might give Nolan the toughness and playmaking ability to turn the tide and finally put offenses on the defensive. Who knows, in a conference where 8-8 practically gets you a first round bye, the 49ers just may keep things interesting for the better part of the season.
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