Part One: The Making of the 2001 49er defense

Oct 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Nothing has been more talked about and more analyzed in the San Francisco Bay Area and all over the sports spectrum regarding the 49er’s as a professional football team in the midst of rebuilding than their defense.
The debate has been clear as to rather this unit will allow the 49er’s to be a viable threat in the National Football Conference, and it’s own West Division.

Well I am happy to report that the 49er defense has climbed the rough terrain of rebuilding and is now in transition to standing up on the very plateau of the colossal group of NFL defenses, that have molded into dominance with key drafts and free agent acquisitions.

This 49er defense was built through multiple NFL drafts due to salary cap bubonic plague that gutted this proud franchise, to the extent it was begging on the streets for the next warm body to fill a lineup. We have since transcended and molded these very young talented players into possible big playmakers and sprinkled a few free agent miracles in between.

Most can recall at how horrendous our secondary used to be, especially back in 1999 when the 49er’s plunged into the black abyss of a (4-12) season. We remember the long time veteran safeties that anchored this 49er defense and gave it flavor and character.

Names such as Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks come to the top of my mind when I think of elite 49er safeties. McDonalds top task was to come up in run support as the eighth defender in the box. And Merton Hanks shared in the team’s lead in pass interceptions because of his unique skills in coverage.

How has the safety position changed since them? The distinction between strong safety and free safety is confused at times today. In essence, Lance Schulters is known as much for his hitting as he is for his ball hawking. And strong safety John Keith who sustained a possible season ending injury yet again was working on his coverage skills back in training camp.

“Most teams in the league have guys who are fairly similar,” 49er’s defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. “That’s something new for us. Every guy has certain things he does better, but most of our guys can now play both safety spots.”

“John Keith can come up and be the eighth man in the box and Lance is a little more of a roamer. Zack Bronson is a third-down centerfielder, but won the position from Keith in training camp. Ronnie Heard is working toward a spot as the fourth safety and he can do both.”

The questions have been a mirror of such as everyone wonders if the 49er defense will have enough to make the team competitive in the league this season. The play of the safeties is not in question however.

Schulters is the leader of this secondary and the only issue with him has been his overall health. He missed back in August some full-squad workouts after under going anterior cruciate surgery on his right knee, as well as surgery prior to August on an entrapped nerve.

The priority of the 49er defense is to create a strong pass rush, which has been an element this defense has lacked for many years. A strong outing out of second-year cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster is also critical. Starting two new linebackers will also be a challenge as they evolve.

Schulters indicated it would be the safeties main responsibility to make sure everyone is on the same page as play calling comes in. “It’s important that everybody does their job,” Schulters said. “Our job is to make sure everybody is lined up and we don’t leave somebody wide open like we did against the Rams last year when Marshall Faulk wasn’t covered and they scored a touchdown.”

Thinking back to that game, Faulk was left uncovered because Schulters did not see him shift out of the backfield and Prioleau couldn’t get a timeout called. The gaffe resulted in an easy 19-yard scoring pass in the third quarter of the Rams 34-24 victory.

The off-season work defensive coordinator Jim Mora has put into strengthening the porous defense of just a season ago, has remained a constant, through all the criticism he has had to endure and all the sarcastic remarks calling for his head over the past two seasons. He remains strong and focused on the daunting tasks at hand, and I commend him for his endurance both mentally and physically.

One of the key acquisitions to the 49er 2001 defense was linebacker Derek Smith; he is a player that comes to us with great promise and agility. He ensures us that the linebacker position though decimated from veteran departures will remain strength.

“We still have a ton of holes and we have to keep working to fill them,” Mora said. “Signing Derek is a step in the right direction.” Smith, a starter the past four seasons for the Washington Redskins, signed a five-year, $10.75 million contract. Smith stands 6-2 and weighs 243-pounds, he was drafted by the Redskins in the third round (No. 80 overall) in the 1997 NFL draft out of Arizona State.

He has 536 career tackles, 4.5 sacks and has posted 100-or-more tackles in every season. Smith recorded 124 tackles, including a team-high five games with 10-or-more tackles, one sack and three passes defended while starting 14 games in 2000.

Mora foresees great things for this young defense, after starting a record seven rookies at one time or another, he is more than ready to see this defense step up in experience.

“We’re younger now than we were last year by loads,” Mora said. “We lost (Winfred) Tubbs; we lost Kenny (Norton); we lost Anthony Pleasant. Those were older, experienced guys.”

The defense started to mold last season, even though there were some setbacks, the started the season in the cellar in ranking dead last, but turned up the heat later as the season wore on.

In the first six games, the 49er’s allowed 32.1 points and 412 total yards, 295.5 of which was passing. In the final six games, they improved to those numbers to 16.5 points, 276.3 total yards and 175.3 yards passing. This was a complete turnaround.

“You see guys going hard, putting out a high effort and putting forth the energy that’s needed to get it done,” Derek Smith said. “It just takes experience. Experience is the best teacher. All the young guys have a year under their belts.” “I think it’s going to be a good situation. There is a lot of room for improvement and that’s what’s fun, working together for a goal as a group and building trust among each other.”

“Smith is very instinctive,” Mora said. “He’s very good against the run, reading blocking combinations, flowing to the football. He’s athletic and a good tackler and he stay in on third down. He’s got good coverage ability.”

The next linebacker worth mentioning is none other than Jeff Ulbrich; he is the starter opposite Derek Smith and Julian Peterson. After the 49er’s dumped both Winfred Tubbs and Ken Norton Jr. after 2000, filling those positions has been a team priority, and a vital part of rebuilding the franchise as a whole again.
The 49er’s have had him contending for Tubb’s spot on the inside, but in hindsight the 49er’s have also needed him to step up and assume some of the leadership role instituted by Norton.

But is it really asking too much from the second-year player whose rookie season was virtually erased by a separated shoulder. He has since been a rock solid addition to the linebacker position, he has won the job despite the questions regarding his health and he figures to be a stout defender for many years to come.

Jeff has a cross he bears in regards to his slow start; he was selected by the 49er’s in the third round of the 2000 NFL draft. Ulbrich was brought in to compete at one of the inside linebacker positions. It was all going well until the shoulder injury finished his season.

“Last year was extremely, extremely frustrating,” said Ulbrich. “I had worked so hard and really felt like I was in good shape. Then I hurt my shoulder and I tried to play through pain, but it got to a point where I was doing more harm than good.”

So after eight plays his rookie season ended when he was placed in Injured Reserve. His shoulder was repaired and he began the slow rehabilitation process. “I feel good now,” he said. “I’m lifting and my strength is about all the way back. The only problem is I won’t know how well it will hold up until we start hitting. That’s the frustrating thing. I’m ready to hit now, but I’ll just have to wait. By then I will be even stronger.”

Recently his wife Christina and himself gave birth to their very first child, he made some comments about fatherhood: “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It is really going great at home and we are just so lucky. Now I have another person depending on me so that makes me work that much harder.”

He has also become a smarter football player doing what a number of 49er’s have already done, and that is going back to school. Just a few classes away from earning his degree. Ulbrich has enrolled at San Jose State University. Finishing his degree is important to him, just as replacing Tubbs and Norton on the field are.

I expect big things from Jeff Ulbrich he brings tenacity to the game that I enjoy, he will be a good compliment to Peterson and Smith over the long haul in the season. He has a reputation as a hard-nosed, tough inside linebacker. He also possesses excellent instincts and read and react skills.

Another misconception on this defense is the focus on first round draft pick defensive end Andre Carter, although a great and gifted player, look for linebacker Julian Peterson drafted in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft to be in the spotlight.

With Carter grabbing lots of attention, he will have a breakout season, the two young pass rushers are the most athletic and physically fit defensive players in the locker room and both display an unparalleled swiftness on the field. All eyes seem to be on Carter, so many have forgotten that Peterson may come through with many more sacks due to the double-teaming of Carter.

With a newly stacked front line (Carter and free agent Dana Stubblefield) in front of him, and an extra year of experience, this could be a bust out year for Peterson.
Last year the rookie missed the first week of summer camp with a contract hold out then missed three games with a nagging shoulder injury that slowed his progress during the season. He still managed four sacks and two interceptions, and that doesn’t include his three-sack effort in his pre-season debut.

All in all look for Peterson to be a big playmaker that will stand up and be accounted for on every play, if not he will make you pay for it. He is a big strong, athletic linebacker with great speed and big-play ability. He combines great balance and speed as a pass rusher. He emerged as a leader on a young, talented defense with his explosive play.

Going back to the 49er’s first pre-season game against the San Diego Chargers, Mariucci watched his young defense get shredded, by a professional team that went (1-15) just last season.

“Everything we did wrong is certainly correctable,” Mariucci said in the wake of a 25-24 last-minute loss to the San Diego Chargers. He continued to downplay the mistakes saying that the defense would only continue to learn from such mistakes. The 49er’s first-string defense gave up touchdowns on the Chargers first two possessions. The reserve defense buckled too.

Whatever the defense did have some bright moments not only in this game but other pre-season games and even our first three regular season games as well. We can expect to see constant progress on all fronts of the defensive line. More retooling will take place and more positioning will be applied as players learn their respected roles on the defense.

“This is the youngest we are going to be,” Mariucci said. “From now on, we’re going to grow up. It’s just a matter of how fast we can grow these guys together. We’ll put a little Miracle Grow on them.”

“Eight rookies on defense last year? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mariucci said. “Now, we break the huddles and guys go out there and are where they are supposed to be and are doing the right things. Last year, we hoped they got to the bus on time.”

The 49er’s continue to pace themselves out of salary cap hell also, and even have high hopes of being the league’s surprise team this season. With the starting offensive line in tact, and Jeff Garcia establishing himself as the starting quarterback, and recently signing a $6 million a year contract.

But no matter how you look at this team, the only real one definition of their making it revolves around their young defense. Back in the beginning of the 2000 season going (6-10), they looked horrible, however they all came together. As they won four of their final six games as the defense only gave up 269-yards a game during the stretch.

“The eight rookie defensive guys who played last year grew up quicker than most rookies did,” Mariucci said. “That’s good. They come to camp this year more like veterans. All we lack is experience. Our defense has been musical chairs for the last couple of years. Now, our oldest guy on defense will be Dana Stubblefield, who’s 30. Now, we need all those young starters to take the next step.”

Seeing such a young defensive unit come together has been aspiring for me as it has been for many other fans, even the coaches are marveling at the progress as they witness it on the field on a daily basis. Change brings new technology. Defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. brings a small video recorder on to the field. On one particular day, he captured the bump-and-run techniques of second-year cornerback Ahmed Plummer. During a break, Mora showed Plummer on the recorder what he was doing and worked on the corrections.

Even first-round disappointment Reggie McGrew is starting to finally come around. In the pre-season opener against the Chargers in pre-season, McGrew moved well and actually made a few tackles. With the return of Stubblefield at defensive tackle, the 49er’s will be delighted if they can get 20 plays a game out of McGrew.

But there is one defensive player that is the talk of the team, many players are excited at his projected status, and that is first round draft pick in 2001 defensive end Andre Carter.

He is the son of former defensive lineman Rubin Carter, who is now defensive line coach for the New York Jets. Left tackle Derrick Deese says he hasn’t seen a rookie come into the league with such a quick takeoff at the line of scrimmage coupled with his ability to use his hands.

“Man this guy is going to be something special,” Stubblefield said. “He’s totally different from his stance to the speed off the ball and the way he uses his hands. He’s kind of like Chris Doleman. Chris came off the ball real well and used his hands. Andre’s a lot faster off the ball. He pushes me. I’ve got to be faster to keep up with him.”

However Carter no matter how exceptional he is, he is still a rookie and he will need to mature into a good player before he can discover becoming a playmaker. I believe he is well on his way to doing just that. After this season watch out, quarterbacks beware.

“In practices, you can set up situations because you’ve got a script,” Mora said. “You can help them. In games, if things don’t come out what you prepared the young players for, they get like, 'Oh my God, I’ve never seen this before, what do I do? We have to get past that.”

The prognosis the defensive unit has painted itself is confidence, that is what they are discovering after going 2-1 so far into the 2001 regular season. We have the ability and talent we just have to channel it into something positive on a consistent basis. Many players became frustrated and depressed well into the pre-season, but as the regular season came and games were won, it began to turn into the other direction.

“Things are starting to click for us,” Stubblefield said. “The young guys have got to handle the satisfaction of everybody patting you on the back and saying that they did a good job last year. It’s what you are going to do from there. Last year is over with. Do you move backwards or do you move forward.”

Stubblefield’s return to the 49er’s has been a blessing, he is believed to still have the same abilities that made the 49er defense awesome back in 1997. He just a few years ago starred in a 2000 film “Reindeer Games” directed by John Frankenheimer, who is a big football fan and a love for the 49er’s.

Stubblefield as I recall after seeing this film, was playing the part of a vicious murderer serving time in a penitentiary. An early scene called for him to attack actor Ben Affleck after a food fight in the prison cafeteria.

Stubblefield armed with a prop knife was supposed to jump on Affleck while he, in turn, fended off Stubblefield with a tray. It was a great scene as I saw this film, I thought Dana played the perfect role in this film.

What happened next though was scary. As Stubblefield goy off Affleck, something went wrong. Stubblefield slipped, and his arm inadvertently sent Affleck to the ground, causing the actor’s head to hit the concrete floor. Affleck immediately lost consciousness.

“Frankenheimer was really hot,” Stubblefield recalled. “He ordered everyone off the set, about 300 people.” Certainly the emotions Stubblefield must have had massive remorse for the accidental mishap that sent Affleck flying to the floor.

Affleck spent the next month after that shooting less dangerous scenes before going back to reshoot the fight scene. When they did return, somebody had drawn a chalk outline of Affleck’s body on the floor as a joke. Affleck wore a helmet to further razz Stubblefield. The second round of shooting the food scene went off without a glitch, thank God.

Stubblefield to this day believes the incident will not hinder Frankenheimer from calling on him again for a future movie project. “Oh I’m sure he will,” said Stubblefield.

Stubblefield was drafted by the 49er’s in the first round in 1993, he recently did a three year stint with the Washington Redskins, before returning back to the 49er’s this season after being waived.

During those three years he was away, the 49er’s went through literal mayhem. The team fell from prominence, the roster was purged and ownership changed. When he left, Stubblefield was the second-youngest player on the defensive line; now, at 30, he’s the eldest on the entire defense.

Dana will be looked upon for leadership, along with fellow defensive tackle Bryant Young. But as far as Stubblefield’s role on the defensive line, that remains the same. “That’s the reason I cam back,” Stubblefield said. “I didn’t have to learn a whole new defense.”

The other attraction of course was reuniting with defensive-line coach Dwaine Board, a close friend, and, of course, with teammate Bryant Young. Coaches remain optimistic that Stubblefield can recapture the production that won him defensive rookie of the year and defensive player of the year awards during his first tour with the 49er’s.

One aspect that is sorely missed on defense is the war screams done by veteran linebacker Ken Norton Jr. Other players have had to fill that void with his release. He was a vocal leader and loud motivator. Many games that were played or were close Norton could be found on the sidelines and out on the field screaming for redemption from his defense, he carried this ferocious mouth chattering right into the locker room before and after the game.

Safety Lance Schulters still says when he gets home after work, he slips on No. 51, which is Norton’s playing number jersey. Mora believes Schulters can be the new spark man if called upon. With his hard hitting style he has the mouth to back it up.

“These guys here are too quiet,” Schulters said recently after a day of watching from the sideline. “They need somebody talking trash. I’m talking already and I’m not even in pads, and it’s going to get even worse when I get in pads.”

“Lance has got that New York voice, he sounds like Mike Tyson,” Mora said. “Sometimes no one has any idea what he’s saying. But he radiates intensity.”

Mora went on to identify other players that may be able to step in and take up where Norton left off, in as far as vocal vocabulary that instills motivation and generates game intensity. He also mentioned Dana Stubblefield.

Stubblefield is a little more outgoing than his teammate Bryant Young, Following one practice; Stubblefield pulled the 49er defense aside to explain that if there are any championships to be won, they will be won on defense.

“We’re not going to come out here every day ready to go, but it’s going to take one of us from the defense to get us going,” Stubblefield said. “We may be young in terms of age, but we’re going to have to come together in situations where we’re hot, we’re down in the fourth quarter and things aren’t going right. We need to learn to feed off from each other.”

Linebacker Julian Peterson echoed the same about Norton and his clamoring, he has tried to step up the war of words himself, and he gradually sees himself as becoming a leader, but that must be based on his own performance.

“You need someone chattering to help get through two-a-days,” Peterson said. “When Kenny was here, I didn’t have to say too much. But when I get comfortable, I’ll get to talk. But most of all, I want people to respect me because I work hard.”

Whatever the words of inspiration it is comforting to know and hear that other players are stepping up, and taking on roles of former veterans. In order to keep team chemistry and solidify positions based on performance and ability, someone has to be the vocal procrastinator. Someone has to assume these roles and carry the torch of inspiration and personnel motivation, every team has one, but it depends on how they channel that force to make a difference.

Now I would like to take a moment to reflect on the second regular game of the season where we hosted the St. Louis Rams on September 23rd, 2001 in 3-Com. After a opening regular season victory over the Atlanta Falcons the 49er’s were riding a tidal wave high in meeting their arch enemy division leading St. Louis Rams.

This was a game like I had never seen before, a game that was seemingly predetermined right from the start, where offensive miscues and slippery hands resulted in seven dropped passes.

The San Francisco 49er’s have now lost five consecutive games to the St. Louis Rams, Moral losses are not part of the equation in the NFL. Either you win or you lose that’s the bottom line, and in our 30-26 loss we walked away from this game with the wind knocked from our lungs.

This game was the closest we had come to defeating the Rams since 1998 when Steve Young was still at the helm and dominating the NFC West rivalry. Nothing could tell the picture more than when wide receiver Terrell Owens sat at his locker for more than an hour head hung low and in a daze.

Jeff Garcia tried to reason with him. So did the coaches, being that close, it simply did not matter the same result was there equaling a devastating loss by in large at Owens dropped passes. His reflection on that production flashed vividly throughout his mind, and the demons were alive and well doing their dirty work.

The Rams are so dominating and so stacked with talent; it reminds us of what we had in the 1980’s and 1990’s when we were so dominant. With Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Marshall Faulk. This group of formidable playmakers combined for a 424-yard offensive effort against us. The Rams have the formula well under control and they exploit every opportunity with accurate precision.

What needs to be reminded though is that the 49er defense was there that day, opposing the Rams with a more experienced unit, one that had been battle tested many times before with these elite playmakers. They went to war even when they knew the odds were not in their favor.

The Rams came off the field with a renewed perspective on the 49er defense and acknowledged that they had matured and that it was much harder to make plays against them. The 49er’s hung in there tooth and nail as a defense, and managed to slow their progress so that we had chances at redemption.

Players on defense that stood out were cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster along with defensive end John Engelberger. Last season they were all considered merely adequate. But on this Sunday, they made key plays and played with a heart full of fire; it was their efforts that made a difference in this score.
I know I walked away acknowledging them for their brave efforts on the field that day. Although we lost, and the frustration was so real and present considering witnessing multiple sets of dropped passes. I still managed to realize that our defense helped keep us in this game.

“I thought they did a great job stopping the big play and making us work the field,” Rams running back Marshall Faulk said. “But, bottom line, they played us tough today. But we expect that from teams. Nobody just wants you to just come into their place and walk all over them. It’s about pride.”

The chances to win this game were there, to come out with a victory against a Super Bowl caliber team like the Rams would have spoke volumes to the heart of this team. But the mistakes and blown coverage took their mark and closed the door on this long anticipated match-up.

Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster provided stellar coverage against the Rams speedy tandem of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, while defensive end John Engelberger was a visible force on the left side of the line.

Webster even came up huge in the fourth quarter. After Bruce caught a 33-yard pass, Webster stripped the Ram’s receiver. Lance Schulters recovered the fumble at the 49er’s 35 and returned it to the 50. Engelberger also recorded a sack for a 12-yard loss.

“We played strong, but they came through in crunch time,” Schulters said. “They came up with the little check down plays, getting the ball to (Faulk) on third and two and third and four. But one thing is for sure, they know we played them tough. So we can build on that for the rematch in St. Louis.”

A defensive stand led to Faulk’s masterful performance on the Ram’s last drive of the game, which ended inside the 10 after the 49er’s had exhausted their timeouts. The drive consumed the final 6:35, with Faulk, who started it off with an 18-yard run, rushing seven times and catching two passes in the first 10 plays.

Faulk rushed 18 times for 105-yards and caught eight passes for 79-yards. Bruce had eight catches for 144-yards and a score as the Rams beat the 49er’s for the fifth straight time after a 17-game losing streak against the 49er’s.

The 49er’s (1-1) also lost running back Garrison Hearst to a concussion in the second quarter when Mark Fields hit him hard. Hearst, who missed the past two seasons while recovering from a broken ankle, returned for a few plays but didn’t play after halftime.

What was aspiring for me in this second game was the improved play of the 49er defense, from the pressure on Warner to the coverage of the speedy Ram’s receivers. Our secondary has grown up and matured to play with the elite.

We have a lot of positives to take from this game and prepare for our rematch on December 9th, 2001. This is where we will find out how much we have learned from this previous match-up. This contest will haunt Terrell Owens and the rest of the receiving corps. For a long time retribution will have to be obtained in a big way. I am pleased to announce they did in a victory over the Jets in Week Three.

This is Part One of this series, where I have explored the transition of this 49er defense and will continue that journey in Part Two. I will also breakdown and analyze the Games of Week Three thru Four and summarize how this 49er defense is standing up in the face of constant exposure and scrutiny.
We will all have to recognize that this defense continues to be young and learning from it’s mistakes, but the fine line is beginning to be crossed where a defense that has been rebuilding is now molding into a solid, talented and disciplined unit to contend with.

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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