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Part Two: Redemption in sight for 2001 49er defense

Oct 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM

From pre-season to regular season the 2001 San Francisco 49er defense is on the spot like it never has been before, realizing that the offense is the mainstay of this team, the players on defense seek redemption for their past sins.

Incredible beams of revelation have been cast down on some real talented players on defense, although they are very young and struggling for identity, they fully understand the importance of representing a championship mentality.
The focus is on winning and that destination is always made known to players that wear the San Francisco uniform, you wear it because you believe in this system and it’s destination.

The emphasis going back before pre-season was to create strength out of a weakness, and that is how the 49er’s approached their task at linebacker. Gone are the veteran vocal linebackers in Ken Norton Jr. and Winfred Tubbs. Talented but raw linebacker recruits now handle the backbone of this defense.

With this transition to younger, faster and healthier linebackers, there comes a price, a price spelled out in growing pains, the very same growing pains the 49er secondary endured almost the whole season last year. The raising of this group will be the responsibility of the 49er coaching staff.

After coming off a pre-season game against the Oakland Raiders in August linebackers coach Richard Smith had this to say: “Right now the whole unit is not producing as well as it should,” he said. “We’ve got to get better, and hopefully that will start.” “Trust me, it’s not a lack of effort. It’s lack of understanding where people fit in our system. It’s such a young group, so almost every play is a new experience.”

This was said back in pre-season but still holds water as to where this unit is going, especially now that linebacker Derek Smith has fallen to injury, and he was the most seasoned of all of them.

The linebackers back in pre-season were over running plays, missed tackles or made them too far downfield. Opposing runners were averaging 5.6-yards a carry through two pre-season games. Both Peterson and Winborn were getting caught out of position in pass coverage.

“Our linebackers, we’ve got potential there,” Coach Steve Mariucci said. “The glass is half full and filling up. They’re athletes, smart guys, versatile guys. They’ve got a real upside. On occasion, they’re making very nice plays. Some of those things, you have to work the bugs out. They’re all new.”

Derek Smith, who joined the 49er’s in the off-season as a free agent, also has had his struggles in understanding the schemes of the 49er’s. This has made it that much more difficult for him to assert leadership over the others.

“It’s gone a little slower than I’d like, but it’s coming along nonetheless,” said Smith, 26, who had more than 100 tackles in each of his four seasons with the Washington Redskins.

Julian Peterson now plays without his former mentor in Ken Norton Jr. He fed off his guidance to register four sacks and two interceptions in 13 games. Now, he plays without him. “I have to get used to the people around me. I have a whole new bunch,” he said.

Then there is Jamie Winborn, a second-round pick; he is the only rookie among the team’s top four linebackers. He left Vanderbilt after his junior season and he has shifted from middle linebacker to weak-side linebacker, the position held by Norton the past seven years.

The real unfortunate one has been Jeff Ulbrich, a third-round pick last season; he played only 11 snaps in three games because of a shoulder injury. He has since been a force on this team. And in my opinion been the most improved thus far.

The linebackers need the time to jell and, in the meantime, they can lean on the defensive line, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. “They have to understand that not one guy is going to be the Superman of the linebackers,” he said. “Those guys are going to have to share that and communicate with each other. It does put more pressure on us up front. We’ve got to take care of those guys this year.”

And in all essence Stubblefield has done just that, the pressure from the front four has been relentless, and continues to be a strength on this 49er defense. You can see that with the passing of each and every game. The linebackers even without Smith are making more plays and contributing in a positive manner.

The competition between rookie Jamie Winborn and Jeff Ulbrich in pre-season is well documented but it actually drew the two players closer together if you believe it or not. Both had to approach the games as a face-off between each other, but they did so in a most professional manner.

Mariucci was asked to describe the “linebacker mentality” in his own words, he did so in charismatic fashion, as he is well known for. He gritted his teeth in mock ferocity and gave a simple explanation. “They’ve got that look in their eye,” Mariucci said. “They’re wired a little different. They’re a high-strung bunch. Maybe they were the bullies in the class when they were growing up. They’re all Type-A personalities. You love those guys.”

When any player goes into the NFL they have to first achieve a degree of inner confidence to succeed, this is what linebacker Jeff Ulbrich struggled with after his injury and is now achieving results. On August 19, 2001 in the 49er’s second pre-season game Ulbrich delivered, he flew around the field in utter jubilation as he slammed himself several times into rookie Raider running back Derek Combs.

His first tackle of Combs was a crushing blow that dropped him for a 1-yard loss. Two other encounters with Combs resulted in a total of 1-yard for the running back. Coaches studied Ulbrich’s six-tackle effort and came away impressed with his total game that day. This is where the light of recognition showed itself in true form that Ulbrich was back for real.

“That was his best game since he’s been a 49er,” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “His best performance. He was healthy, he was productive, he was good with calls, he took charge out there, he had fun out there; he was just playing ball.”

The 49er’s pinned their future hopes on this burly and impressive, third round pick out of Hawaii in 2000. He intrigued coaches last summer in training camp with both his strength and speed. He was the pick that would replace Ken Norton Jr. However competition came again in the form of 2001 second-round pick linebacker Jamie Winborn.

Ulbrich confided in himself that he would not relent, that he would fight each and every day until he was ahead in the depth charts, and that he had a reasonable lead over Winborn in playing with the first team. He understood that once again the pressure was on for him to perform. So he dug in and prepared himself for the fight.

“I think it’s his nature. I think that’s Jeff Ulbrich. That’s what we were hoping for when we drafted him,” Mariucci said. “He was like that in college. And now that he’s feeling healthy enough with his shoulder and he doesn’t have to worry as much about it, he can just go out and play and not worry about how he’s going to hold up.”

Deep inside Ulbrich he wants more than anything to put his injury on a shelf for a long time to come does. He had stayed relatively healthy through his days at Live Oak High School and as a two-year starter at Hawaii, where he eventually led the Western Athletic Conference with single-season school record of 169-tackles his senior year.

“Last year, I prepared as well as I did this year,” said Ulbrich, who still can’t figure out how he injured himself initially. “I did everything right, I ran. I lifted, my flexibility and strength were all there. But sometimes it happens, unfortunately.”

The competition that built between Winborn and Ulbrich is an interesting tale, Winborn was struggling in the early stages of the pre-season games and he knew he was. But it did not phase him that Ulbrich was in competition for his position; he actually leaned on him for pointers.

“He’s like another coach to me,” Winborn said. “During the game, on the sidelines, I listen to what my coach has to say to me. Then I’m asking Ulbrich, 'How am I doing, how am I doing?’ He’s telling me, 'You’ve got to get over here on this, you’ve got to do this.’ He just helps me out in every way he can, telling me what to expect, telling me what I need to be prepared for, and helping me study.”

Now there are some selfish athletes that would not give their competition the time of day, but Ulbrich believes everyone deserves a fair and honest shot, he also looks at the challenge as a way of improving not only himself but the team as a whole as well.

Ulbrich said, “We want to make this team better. We want to win. Whatever makes this team better, we’re willing to do. I’m going to help him out as much as I can, and he definitely helps me, definitely pushes me. He’s a great athlete, a great competitor. I think we feed off each other.”

Ulbrich now has a few reasons in his life to be happy about especially after the birth of his new daughter back in March. He realizes more than ever at how important it is to provide for his new family. The intensity just raised the bar.
“It really puts your priorities into focus,” Ulbrich said of Samantha’s March 23rd arrival. “I’d say that football might not be as important. But it almost becomes more important because now this is my way to provide for her.”

Even though Ulbrich finally beat out Winborn for a starting spot, they both share now because of the injury to linebacker Derek Smith. Jamie Winborn’s inspiration at the linebacker position was Ken Norton Jr. And he used that to motivate him into the elite star he knows he must become to be successful here in the NFL.

“Ken Norton has a great legacy with this team,” said Winborn, the 49er’s second-round pick. “I’ve watched film of him when I can so I could see some of the things that made him so great. But I just have to go out there and be Jamie Winborn.”

Winborn is a bright young prospect for this 49er defense, one that he will be cast into even more with Derek Smith out. He is the 22-year-old three-year starter at Vanderbilt who combines tremendous speed and bruising physical play in which he averaged 126 tackles per season.

“He’s doing really well,” defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. “But Jamie just needs to worry about Jamie. He doesn’t need to worry about Kenny, because you can’t fill Kenny’s shoes, not right off the bat at least.”

Injuries have already ribbed the linebackers of their true effectiveness; rookie Jamie Winborn suffered a strained right quadriceps, right before the last pre-season game against Denver. And outside linebacker Julian Peterson sustained a bad left ankle sprain during the Denver pre-season game causing him to miss the regular season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

Peterson went on to miss the first two regular season games due to the left ankle sprain in Denver on August 31st. Veteran linebacker Terry Killens replaced him; a free agent from Tennessee signed primarily as a special-teams player. He returned in game three against the New York Jets.

On August 2nd, 2001 The San Francisco 49er’s signed Terry Killens to a one-year deal worth the NFL minimum of $477,000. “Of all the guys out there unemployed at this point and time, we felt he had the best chance to be a significant contributor on special teams,” 49er’s General Manager Terry Donahue said.

“He backed up all three (linebacker) spots at Tennessee and was a special-teams core player;” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. Mariucci went on to say that Killens would be used to back up second-year outside linebacker Julian Peterson at the “buck” position.

Killens stands 6-1 and weighs 241-pounds. “You’ve got to have guys like me, a soldier who’s out there ready to get in the trenches,” said Killens, a third-round draft pick out of Penn State in 1996.

The way we were able to sign Terry Killens was a miracle all in itself, the 49er’s spent many hours scraping and panning up something to sign Killens as insurance to their depleted linebacker positions.

Killens had worked out for the 49er’s during the spring, but Coach Steve Mariucci said it was apparent that the former Penn State linebacker wasn’t in football shape. Mariucci said Killens, who dropped 10 pounds in the interim, was in much better shape this time around. “He seems to be closer to training camp condition,” the coach said. “He’s got some experience. He’ll push the guys.”

Even former Carolina Panthers All-Pro Lamar Lathon was brought in for a tryout, but in the end, General Manager Terry Donahue said the team decided that Killens would be in keeping with the team’s philosophy of bringing in young, fast, healthy players.

It was thought right about at that time, with the 49er’s limited cap space, the team would have to settle for a cheaper option at linebacker. But the departure of Wes Call, an offensive tackle who walked out of camp for personal reasons, freed up about $209,000, just enough to allow the 49er’s to sign Killens.

Killens helps the 49er’s recover from their linebacker losses in Pro Bowlers Ken Norton Jr. and Winfred Tubbs, plus reserves Jeff Posey and Artie Ulmer. He helps depth in more ways than one because he can play every linebacker position, and will be valuable to special teams.

“I don’t want to say we’ll be better (at linebacker) because that offends a lot of guys who were here previously. But I will say that this team at this time has got to get younger and get more speed on the field,” General Manager Terry Donahue said of the rebuilding 49er’s. “And we’re moving in that direction, We want to be young, fast and healthy.”

One linebacker that can tell you he’s happy is former Washington Redskin now 49er Derek Smith, he suffered what he calls mental brutality by the Redskins front office, and he never felt like he was appreciated there, even though he proved himself on the field time in and time out.

Derek Smith and his wife Taryn bought a house in August near San Jose, and they are expecting their first child soon. This combined with his new start in San Francisco has Smith totally overjoyed, with a new purpose and direction to go into.

Smith said there have always been questions about his size (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), his ability to cover the pass, his reputation for playing “soft”. But the respect he received from the Redskin front office was a big fat zero.

The change in ownership and management were also contributing forces to Smith’s leaving there, he was also influenced by the fact that Dana Stubblefield had bragged about how organized and disciplined the 49er’s were.

“I just felt for me to grow as a player and to grow as a person, it was time for me to leave. I felt the perceptions of me as a player and a person was so deep-rooted. I just wanted a fresh start.” “The whole attitude was just too negative out there. But here, nobody talks about your body weight or your size,” Smith said. “Everyone meshes so well. Just the whole team.”

Stubblefield went on to say that he can personally relate to what Smith was feeling in Washington; he had his own legitimate reasons for wanting out of that organization as well. San Francisco had always been his destiny of choice, even though he denied those feelings when signing on with them. So you can see that everything good comes around full circle.

Added Stubblefield. Who says he also escaped Washington after leaving the 49er’s in 1997 to sign a big contract with the Redskins: “If you’d seen Derek last year and you see him this year, he’s a total different guy. He’s enjoying the game more. He’s having a lot of fun. He’s enjoying the coaches he’s being coached by.”

Smith was a starter right away when the Redskins drafted him in the third round of the 1997 draft. He has started ever since (63 of 66 career games). And he has been successful ever since. So far both Smith and Ulbrich have filled the huge gaps nicely after the departures of Norton and Tubbs. Youth and speed are really emphasized here, and to be honest that was the bottom line, when making the final choice to go with a faster and younger linebacker unit.

I believe along with the 49er coaching staff that unfortunately there comes a time when a veteran falls out of grace, being that their physical being is not the same when they first arrived on the scene. Norton and Tubbs were very near that trademark, and coincidently the salary cap was the anchor that weighed that down even more. The time was ripe so they took it.

“Derek is just a great player. He plays with a lot of intensity, throws his body out there and plays hard,” Peterson said. “And he rarely makes mistakes, so we need that in a young defense. It’s good to have Derek Smith at middle linebacker.”

Unfortunately the injury bug came once again to visit the 49er’s, and linebacker Derek Smith was the victim. Middle linebacker Derek Smith suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee playing practice one Wednesday, he is expected to miss two to three games.

The injury occurred when a teammate fell into Smith’s planted left leg. None other than rookie Jamie Winborn, who has started two pre-season games before suffering his own injury, has replaced him in the starting lineup.

Winborn will play at “plugger” and take over Smith’s duties in nickel and dime situations. And Jeff Ulbrich will slide over from plugger to Smith’s “mike” position. “We’ll be OK,” defensive coordinator Jim Mora said of losing the team’s leading tackler (37 through three games). “We’ll miss him, without question. But we’re used to it, right? We’ve been through it before.”

The injuries are what can make or break this proud franchise, it was a pure indication of what happened last season, in contrast the same bad omens are beginning to happen again. We lost safety John Keith for the season in Week One, and now we have lost both Derek Smith and center Jeremy Newberry but both should be back in a matter of weeks.

“What this team has to do, just like any other team, you’ve got to find a way to replace your injured players,” Coach Steve Mariucci said. “(Backup center) Ben Lynch has to do it, just like (linebacker) Terry Killens had to do it and now Jamie Winborn must do it.”

“So you’re taking a guy who started in the NFL for four years and three games and going with a guy who’s played two plays, so there’s a drop-off in experience. But hey, we’re used to it. We’ve been through this. It’s not like it’s going to set us back.”

Smith said the injury occurred while he was covering a pass play. As he broke toward the ball, another defender fell across his knee while it was planted. It was the second time he has torn his left MCL. He suffered a similar injury in junior college in 1995.

I have full confidence that this unit will not skip a beat, it has already done that in the game against Carolina. Although not in the same caliber as Smith, Winborn will play well enough until his return, and gain valuable experience in the process.

Now let’s look at Week Three’s regular season game on Monday Night Football against the New York Jets. Of course this was a game played in the backdrop of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and all the fanfare and emotional burdens from that day were still there.

It seemed like the San Francisco 49er’s would wind up being a New York punching bag, so that New Yorkers could have something to grasp as to a victory, in this time of immense need. Well the 49er’s were also there in comradeship with their football counterparts in the Jets, and it turned out to be an exciting football game to say the least.

We defeated the New York Jets 19-17 to go to (2-1) in our division. It was a game won on the ground for the very first time by our very own running game in Garrison Hearst and rookie Kevan Barlow. Both combined to run a total of 233-yards, and effectively ate the game clock so that the Jets were left hanging.

Safety Lance Schulters called it a game of exacting some revenge on the Jets. Schulters, a Hofstra product, who worked out twice for the Jets before the draft, was selected by the 49er’s in the fourth round of the 1998 draft.

“I knew we needed a win. I had some payback in my mind. I was waiting for that game,” Schulters said. “They had a chance to draft me (in 1998), but they took a quarterback over me. I wanted to break my TV.”

“I’ve been waiting for that, to show them they made a big mistake picking (Nebraska’s) Scott Frost over me (in the third round). I was still a little ticked off. It was payback.”

Other developments that did not perturb the 49er’s was the fact that Center Jeremy Newberry was lost due to an ankle injury, Ben Lynch came right in and picked up where he left off.

The 49er defense showed up once again for this game, in sharp contrast to what it did in pre-season they all played well. It held Jets tailback Curtis Martin in check as much as it could (66 yards and two touchdowns in 19 carries). And the Jets passing game was clearly ineffective passing for only (176 yards).

Kevan Barlow gained 83 yards on only nine carries, and Hearst had 95 yards on 20 carries, which if you want to believe it or not both had only 58 yards apiece coming into this nights game.

“I was running, and I didn’t know which way to run because the holes were so big,” Barlow said of an offensive line that played terrifically despite losing center Jeremy Newberry to a high ankle sprain.

Terrell Owens somehow redeemed himself after the loss against St. Louis by catching a six-yard toss for a touchdown in the second quarter; he had four catches for 38 yards. After that the passing game was really nonexistent for the running game was the dominant offensive punch.

What is most evident though is the fact that the defense was very much a force in this game, not only in shutting Curtis Martin down and Testaverde’s passing game, but also generating immediate pressure on their quarterback. With rookie defensive end Andre Carter getting his first sack in front of his father on the enemy sideline. It was that moment I savored the most.

“It’s a good sign because people doubted we could run the football as well as we did,” 49er’s quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “That’s a positive for us.” “Every week is getting better for me,” said Hearst, who missed the previous two seasons with an ankle injury.

What was also very significant was the play of our very own special teams, as kicker Jose Cortez kicked four consecutive field goals, and kick-return specialist Vinny Sutherland returned one for 65-yards. A masterful game and a victory to boot, I was very impressed with this game in all aspects, and I am confident that we will continue to play well on the road.

In Week four we ran into former 49er mastermind George Seifert now the head coach with the Carolina Panthers, who owned four consecutive victories over us as a franchise. It was almost like a curse that we could never shake, when Carolina made our playing schedule.

I am happy to report that it was our Head Coach Steve Mariucci that was able to play the mind games of George Seifert and come away with a solid victory, that also holds some room for further improvements. We defeated the Panthers in Sunday Night football 24-14. And I jumped off my couch with utter excitement.

This was a game that I saw some real balance in our offense, we had a mixture of running and passing that I thought was spectacular of the 49er’s of old. This was a game that I really believe we would have lost just two seasons ago, we have had a bad record in close games, and this was headed that way.

“What’s so positive for us is that we are not relying on just one side of the ball,” quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “Our defense, our special teams (are playing well). I’m so excited with the way our defense is playing. I know we can do so much more on offense.”

“I think we have a lot more confidence in the coaches and in each other,” said safety Lance Schulters, who had one of the 49er’s three interceptions that night.

“There’s so much more cohesion and the players are starting to learn each other,” said defensive coordinator Jim Mora, who has been heavily maligned in the past.

What was so impressing to me was how well the defense played yet again, if ever there were clearer signs of immense improvement over last season, it is now as we wrap up four games of playing.
This 49er defense is for real folks, and I am not just treading water when I say that, Jim Mora has done a masterful job of getting this highly criticized unit to a status that is equal with many in the league today.

I am not saying that we are in no need of improvement but this unit is really impressing me. The defense held the Panthers down despite the absence of leading tackler Derek Smith, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Rookie Jamie Winborn filled in extremely well, leading both teams in tackles with 12, despite having part of his cheek torn off during a first-quarter spiking.

“I didn’t know I was hurt,” Winborn said. “Then I went to the sidelines and took a drip of water and it leaked out. Guys kept saying, 'What happened to you?”

Only seven of the Panthers points came against a 49er’s defense that includes seven starters who are in their first or second seasons. Panther’s Doug Evans 39-yard interception return resulted in the Panther’s only second-half score.

“We wanted to prove we’re a legitimate defense,” said Jeff Ulbrich, who started at middle linebacker in place of leading tackler Derek Smith, who was out with a knee injury. “It seems we have something to prove every week. TV commentators and analysts are always saying how young we are. Well, we’re starting to come together and grow.”

Both second-year cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster each made second-half interceptions, which was the first time they’d had interceptions in the same game. Safety Lance Schulters had one as well.

“The defense came up big with turnovers;” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “Three interceptions certainly helped the cause.” This solid defensive effort by this team is what made the difference in the win and loss column. Along with special teams that by the way have played exceptionally well, we are really going places.

It was Ahmed Plummer who sealed the Panther’s fate when he intercepted Weinke’s pass with two minutes left to play. Weinke was under intense pressure by a pack of hungry 49er pass rushers. John Engelberger, Andre Carter, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young. This is when Plummer used his intuition and picked off his pass at the 49er’s 13-yard line.

This is the strength now of the 49er defense a powerful front four and a crafty and skilled secondary that is right in the top ten in the league. With another year, or less our linebackers will be there also.

“I’ve got to give credit to the entire defense,” Plummer said of his second interception of the season. “Everyone was doing their job the whole game. The defensive line got good pressure on the quarterback and forced his errant throw.”

With everything said and done we can point to the 49er defense as a growing and maturing unit, that is making it’s mark well known on opposing offenses. We will have redemption for two seasons full of mistakes and mishaps. We will prove that this unit is for real, and that it will come after you with everything it has.

I am proud to finally say that our defense is almost over the transition, and sprinkled with a few more playmakers, it will be unstoppable. The league is leaning on great defenses to win games; it looks like we have a graduating class.

Look for more in Part Three to this series and the final part to this series, as I explore more into the dark closets of this defense, and tear apart Week Five against Atlanta. This will be yet another stepping stone for a young defense out to prove that they are much more than just that. Playmakers abound and enemy offenses beware the red and gold is coming to teach you a lesson in respectability.

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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