Last week, a friend and I get into a pretty heated discussion about the upcoming season...and our conversation centered around how well (or poorly, to hear my friend tell it) the 49ers defense would fare this fall. Our difference of opinion centered primarily on whether or not last season's 5-2 finish and ranking of 13th in total defense would carry over to this season.
The argument is a common one among football fans familiar with the Niners. The 49ers defense, just like every other part of the team, has been a unit in flux over recent seasons. They began last season running former coach Mike Nolan's now infamous "flex" scheme, and even the team's best defenders seemed lost on occasion. Blown assignments, lack of a steady pass rush, and a tendency to disappear in the 4th quarter of close contests became a point of increasing consternation with the fans. After 10 weeks, 2 wins, and 6 losses, newly appointed head coach Mike Singletary and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky decided to scrap the hybrid. In its place, they installed a far simpler 1-gap, 3-4 defensive scheme. The results were immediate and impressive. A unit that was considered "just good enough to lose" for most of the Mike Nolan era became the team's obvious strength, keeping the team in close games, and doing more than enough to make up for Mike Martz' inconsistent offense.
So...can the defense pick up this season where they left off last season? The answer to this question is yes...provided that a few key elements of the defense solidify early enough in the season. There are several "X factors" that will have to pan out for this defense to become the dominating force that Coach Singletary envisions.
The first of these "X factors" is the pass rush. When the Niners failed to select a pass rusher early in this year's draft, living rooms and bars throughout 49er territory sent up a frustrated chorus of boos. Fans have a right to be frustrated...but before throwing in the towel and resigning ourselves to yet another year of sub-par defensive pressure, it should be noted that the answers to the Niners' pass rush quandary are already on the roster. Their names are Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson, and Justin Smith.
After injuries sidetracked him early on, Parys Haralson has finally became the player the Niners were hoping he could be coming off the edge. Playing ROLB last season, he managed 36 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 passes defensed, and a fumble recovery in 10 starts. Adjusted for a full season, his numbers would place him among the NFL's elite pass rushing outside linebackers. If Haralson starts from day one in 2009, he has a very good chance of achieving a double digit sack total and providing steady pressure from the weak side...something the 49ers have lacked for quite some time.
Though there are some that like to throw around the "b" word when it comes to Manny Lawson, the fact is that he hasn't had the opportunity to play a full season since his rookie campaign. Fans who collectively groaned when the 49ers decided to forgo drafting the best available prototypical pass rusher in this year's draft should give Manny another look. The guy has every measurable a team could want in an edge rusher: speed, athleticism, build, and an almost freakish wingspan. In limited playing time last season, Manny notched 3 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. These numbers aren't world changing, but it should be noted that Manny's overall play improved dramatically when Mike Singletary took the reins and Manny actually managed to see more playing time in the team's base set. As the 2009 season approaches, the word is that Manny's knee is 100% and that he will be allowed to focus on rushing the passer. If Manny can manage to realize even half of his upside, he should be able to provide a productive bookend opposite Parys Haralson.
Whenever Justin Smith comes up in conversation with 49er fans, the same inevitable question is asked: "Why do we pay him so much?" On the surface, the question is a valid one. After all, Justin is being used as a 3-4 DE, and those guys aren't usually big money play makers. But upon closer inspection, Justin Smith is far more than a typical 3-4 DE. His 73 tackles and 7 sacks rank 3rd and 17th respectively as it pertains to all NFL defensive linemen...and among 3-4 defensive linemen, his numbers rank 1st and 4th respectively. As 3-4 defensive ends go, Justin Smith isn't just good...he is a machine. Given a simpler scheme and fewer roles to play (in Coach Nolan's "flex" last season he lined up at every position on the line, and played some linebacker, too) from the get go, Justin's productivity should only increase...and if it does, you can bet that naysayers will stop wondering why Justin's bankroll is so fat.
Takeo a bow, Mr. Spikes
The second "X" factor that must pan out for Coach Singletary's vision to be realized is a continued contribution from this off-season's most valuable re-signing, Takeo Spikes. In only 13 starts last season, Spikes notched 3 interceptions, a sack, 6 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and a jaw-dropping 96 tackles.
When one considers that he plays opposite the man that many feel is the best inside linebacker in football, it is easy to see why Takeo gets overlooked. After all, most "TED" linebackers are un-athletic tackling machines that exist to take on lead blockers. But Takeo is, for all intents and purposes, a second "MIKE" 'backer. His ability to cover, change direction, rush the passer and force plays coming off the block make him a very rare commodity indeed...a "TED" backer that can do it all. Provided that he starts this season where he finished last season, the 49ers will have the best inside linebacker tandem in the league.
Last, but not least...the 49ers have got to find a way to get quality play at the free safety position. While a great many fans found an easy scapegoat in big money cornerback Nate Clements for blown coverages last season, observers in the know will tell you that the 49ers biggest problem in the secondary has been the play of the safeties.
Last season's starter, Mark Roman, was a step slow in coverage over the top, and no matter what scheme was used to compensate, opposing passers seemed to find breakdowns in coverage time and time again. Without effective safety play over the top, the corners had to play off their assignments in order to prevent getting beat deep...and as anyone who watched last season's contest against Dallas will tell you, the results were disastrous. Instead of asking Roman to reprise his role as the secondary's revolving door, the team has anointed Dashon Goldson to start at free safety. Goldson has shown signs of being the hyper-aggressive, ball-hawking playmaker that the 49ers need...but he's also shown signs of susceptibility to injury, and a tendency to over pursue, leaving him out of position.
As it stands today, the quality of Goldson's play will have a tremendous effect on the overall effectiveness of the secondary. If he fails, the 49ers fortunes in pass coverage aren;t likely to improve. However, if he proves to be a quality starter, look for the team to employ a more aggressive style of play in order to create turnovers...something the Niners have failed to do with any measure of success since 2002.
In case you are wondering how the argument ended, it ended the way most football arguments do this time of year...with a wager. Based on what the Niners showed they could do over the final seven games of last season, and on the moves they've made to ready themselves for the 2009 season, I feel that this defense is good enough to keep the team close in games on the road, generate pressure on opposing QBs, and force turnovers...which should be enough to earn them a top 10 ranking in total defense for 2009. If I'm right, I'll get a bottle of Macallan 18...and if I'm wrong, I'll be getting fitted for a Shehawk jersey.