Part Three: San Francisco’s defense makes the Grade

Oct 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM

San Francisco’s defense has and will continue to rise to the occasion as the regular season wears onward. We have seen a franchise come from the brink of ruin, beginning with their defense to a level of excellence we never thought could happen in such a short time.
Although they are thin on depth, every player on this defense has the personal talent and ability to make this team a contender in the playoff hunt, should they remain relatively healthy. Every player must hold themselves accountable for their actions on and off the field, and believe that this is a team committed to the excellence of winning.

Taking a look back to the 2001 training camp days and pre-season games in August, we take a look at defensive tackle Reggie McGrew and defensive end Chike Okeafor both in their third years as 49er’s. The 49er’s had high hopes for both these individuals when they were drafted.

Both unfortunately have taken a long time to come even close to the minimum of our expectations, the 49er’s have demonstrated great patience in their reoccurring injury status and development as a whole. It has been aggravating and downright frustrating for many 49er fans and coaches as these two have progressed so slowly.

Reggie McGrew now is a back-up tackle to both veterans Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield, Chike Okeafor is a back-up defensive end to both Rookie Andre Carter and second-year man John Engelberger.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci has been most patient with both these players and has high hopes that they will both contribute in some way to the team in 2001. Always the optimist Mariucci has some kind words for both players when asked.

“When he’s out here practicing, he’s been practicing well,” Mariucci said of Okeafor, who missed some workouts in training camps with a right quadriceps bruise. “The trick is to get him on the practice field.”

I must admit I have had frustration with Okeafor as well, because before we took Engelberger and Carter, I had high expectations that Okeafor would provide the pass rush we so much needed. The 49er’s had struggled time and time again with a non existent pass rush, Okeafor was supposed to be a answer to that equation once drafted.

Okeafor a third round pick in 1999, has been only a hair above marginally when compared to McGrew, the team’s top pick that same year. Simply because he has played in 27 games his first two seasons. McGrew missed his entire rookie season with injuries and played in just 10 games last season.

Many in the organization and all around the Bay Area called for McGrew’s head on a platter after so many injury updates began to look like a daily newspaper headline. But they told him he needed to step up and produce, simply because waiving him would have been a huge salary cap gamble.

The 49er’s looked to save around $600,000 on the salary cap if they released him and no team claimed him. But here is the catch, the 49er’s would have to clear an additional $828,000 if they were to waive him and another team claimed him.

Under league salary cap rules, the unauthorized portion of a player’s signing bonus counts immediately if another team picks up his contract. McGrew signed a seven-year deal as a rookie in 1999 with a $2.5 million signing bonus. Lord we wish we had our money’s worth now don’t we?

McGrew was the first pick of the Bill Walsh-Terry Donahue regime. At the time they made their selection, the 49er’s were not certain that Bryant Young, coming off a gruesome leg injury where it was broken, would be able to resume his career.

At that time the 49er’s had only one defensive tackle, Junior Bryant, under contract and desperately needed help, so they selected McGrew with the No. 24 overall selection.

What has been an ongoing problem for McGrew is his overall health and durability, both of these essentials have plagued him consecutively over and over again, making the opinion and clamor for his release all that louder. In two seasons with the 49er’s. McGrew has recorded just three tackles and no sacks. And he further damaged himself when he knowingly failed to show for a mandatory mini-camp back in April.

“That was weird,” 49er’s defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. “Reggie is just a quiet guy, but he’s never been a bad attitude. I do feel like he’s coming out of his shell a little more, he’s hot a girlfriend and he just seems to be more comfortable. He’s really making progress.”

Okeafor on the other hand has recorded three sacks last season, sharing time on the outside with just mixed results. In training camp Okeafor managed to move ahead to the top of the depth chart at left defensive end ahead of John Engelberger and John Milem. Okeafor has since then fluctuated allowing Engelberger to start most games and he is filling in.
“I’ve had no flashes of brilliance or no down time,” said Okeafor. “My progress has been steady. It’s just that my opportunities have not been continuous. I can’t control that. That’s how football goes.”

Okeafor a third-round draft pick out of Purdue in 1999, his rookie season (nine tackles, one sack) ended when he sprained his left knee in Week 13. He played in all but one game last season, but mainly as back up to Engelberger and finished with 28 tackles and three sacks.

Whatever the situation Okeafor knows he must step it up this season or face a waiver for next season, the expectations of him are real this year, and he needs to gage that accordingly and some how provide himself with opportunities he claims have not come his way. I say just go out and make something happen Chike, sack the quarterback and put your hands in the air.

Reggie McGrew showed some flashes back in pre-season football, in the opener against San Diego he stopped running back Mukala Sikyala for no gain on the first play of a second-quarter series. McGrew then again dropped Sikyala for a two-yard loss on the Chargers next possession. This happened after just four months ago, he never even showed up at a scheduled mini-camp because of “personal reasons,” come to find out it was because he missed home and had some real weight issues.

He was fined $2,400 for missing the mandatory training camp session, forcing him to realize that the franchise was not happy with this turn of events in his life. Since then McGrew has accepted his back up role and is anxious to put the past behind him, but once again as before in Week Five in our second overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons, McGrew left the game injured again with a high ankle sprain.

I can only speculate as to why he is injured again, but he seems to be totally unreliable in the sense that his physical well being is always in a compromising no win situation with us, especially when we need him the most. I can only hope he heals quickly and that he will be available in our game after our bye week against Chicago.

In his most successful stint yet in Week Four against the Carolina Panthers, he played with exceptional distinction sparing in relief for starters Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield. He has once again accepted his role, even though he still hangs on to that first round pick status back in 1999, it only serves as a reminder of what he should be, now he must play for survivability due to his injury proneness.

The 49er’s beat the Panthers 24-14, and McGrew had a good hand in that, Mariucci continues to claim that McGrew is a key component of the team’s defensive-line rotation, that held true when he made two tackles and batted down a pass while playing 18 snaps in relief that Sunday.

“He was active. He was jumping and batting balls down, and he was chasing the ball to the sideline,” Mariucci said. “He was getting involved in the plays. He seemed to be fresh. He gave Stubby and B.Y. a rest on occasion.” “It was exactly the role we intended for him this year,” Mariucci added. “He’s never missed a practice. He had a 9good) training camp. I hope it continues because he’s very important to us right now, because he’s the only back up defensive tackle we suited up (the past three games).”

Many people thought that with the arrival of veteran Dana Stubblefield he would revolt, and go into a phase that he would reject wanting to be a part of this team. He has claimed otherwise noting that he had personal issues to attend to then.

Stubblefield was not so sure though when McGrew missed time through mini-camps, realizing he was there to fill his shoes. Stubblefield could only speculate at what McGrew was thinking.

“I’m sure you’re not happy if you’re a defensive tackle and they bring in another defensive tackle,” Stubblefield said. “But he’s been upbeat about everything. He’s not a whiny (complaining) guy. He doesn’t complain about getting reps. I’m glad we have him.”

McGrew knows what all the 49er fans expect of him, and what the coaching staff wants for him to contribute. He has a personal agenda within himself to try and fill, and he realizes more than ever of how the injury bug has effected his standing.

“Nobody would say they’re satisfied at this point. You just keep working,” said McGrew, who sat out his rookie season with a torn triceps. “When it’s your time to go in, you do what you can do to help the team.”

Added Stubblefield: “in the last couple games, we’ve gone with a three-man rotation and it’s worked great. He’s making plays, I’m making plays, and B.Y. is making plays. It’s working great because we want to keep all of us fresh.”

Let’s hope for all our sakes that McGrew can continue to be a presence on this defensive line for the remainder of this regular season. In a time where depth is very thin, we will count on him all that more.

In note to defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield he has had to make some personal adjustments of his own, since coming back to the 49er’s. He has had to step up as a veteran assuming a larger role with so many young players on defense.

“He has always been a heck of a player. He’s got so much to offer,” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said at the team headquarters. “I don’t know what his role was in Washington. But when he was here before, he was with Chris Doleman, Tim McDonald, Ken Norton and other veterans. He wasn’t a vocal guy, but he always got his job done.”

“Now he’s the oldest guy and has the most experience. He is more vocal, more chippy. He has become a vocal leader.”

Dana Stubblefield has admitted the change has been new to him, but realizes it is necessary for him to take on a bigger role because on defense more than half the starters would be first or second year players. On offense the depth chart does not have a rookie starter as of yet.

“I have to be a (leader),” Stubblefield, 30, said. “Some of the guys are young and they still need to be led by the hand. Especially on defense. On offense, we have a few guys like Derrick Deese, Ray Brown and Jeremy Newberry. On defense, me and Bryant Young are the only ones that have rings.”

And so it is I cannot feel but utter confidence in having Stubblefield back, already the front four in this defense has proved to be an upgrade over last season, pressure is being applied and the run is being challenged like never before. It is his acquisition that was key to this line, although I supported Brentson Buckner in the beginning, I now know that the talent and ability of Stubblefield far outweigh his status.

The critics and skeptics of defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. are not so lined up in opposition as they once were; Jim Mora took over the coordinator position on Jan. 24, 1999. That previous season the 49er’s had gone from the No. 1-ranked defense in the league to No. 23 on former defensive coordinator John Marshall’s watch.

No one can say that Marshall was to blame, it seemed the domino effect would take it’s time falling as aging old veterans would fall to the grace of the NFL’s mandated salary cap. All of the 49er sins of the past and players already gone or soon to be retiring would create a black hole wind tunnel that would suck the very life from this once proud and strong 49er defense.

Mora accepted the task and vowed not to be discouraged, but rise to the unbeatable challenge at that time, he coincided with Steve Mariucci taking over for former Head Coach George Seifert who accepted the head job with the Carolina Panthers.

Still as the 1999 season unveiled a horrific year in which the defense struggled for identity, so it did again in 2000. But it began to find itself within the last half of that season in distinct fashion.

I for one have stood by Mora’s side knowing that his job was almost borderline superhuman, he had an ordeal no one could have realized as depth was a concern from the very beginning and constant shuffling would take place like a fast hand of cards in a polka game. He gambled and took chances; he improvised and stayed with his game plan.

“I have a pretty good perspective on pro football,” Mora said. “I understand what it takes. I don’t look at it as being hard. There have been hard times, but there’s never been a day I’ve gone to work and not given it my all.”

“I’ve had a lot of success in the past. I’ve had No.1-ranked units. I know what I’m doing. I enjoy the challenge of coaching these young guys. It’s rewarding to see a guy like Ahmed Plummer go through his growing pains and see him mature. It’s rewarding to know you’re able to help guys along in their careers. Guys like Ahmed and Jason Webster.”

Mora’s job although liked by himself has been no bed of roses, since taking over in 1999, his units ranked 28th in yards allowed his first year and 29th last season when five positions were manned primarily by rookies.

This is what Mora faced when he assumed command of the 49er defense, he had a secondary that was just right out of college; the aging linebackers were battered and could barely run; and the pass rush was among the least imposing in the whole league. These were all valid reasons, why the 49er’s defense had put together it’s two worst seasons of the last two whole decades.

Many fans and sports broadcasters alike would blast Mora throughout the season as the defense struggled to stop or at least contain anyone, the 49er offense seemed to be the only stable unit on the team and still remains that way. As they were doing this and hanging him by a noose, I was on record defending him for his faith that patience and timing were essential elements to development.

“Fans have a right to be fickle and they don’t like it when you lose,” Mora said. “People like to hold one person at fault. But anybody who says 'He’s too young’ wouldn’t know my background. I have as much background as anyone does in the league. I came out of the womb into football.”

Mora who is 39 years old has a father that is head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. That alone might lead you to believe how he got his position, and that he was not able to run a NFL defense.
However Mora took his first pro job in the San Diego Chargers personnel department in 1985. He then joined his father’s staff with New Orleans Saints in 1992 as defensive back coach, in charge of a unit that twice led the league in fewest passing yards allowed.

With this being his third season as the coordinator, everyone can expect the defense to be a more improved unit overall, and after five regular season games minus the opener, they have been just that in my opinion. With salary cap restraints diminishing in 2002 and 2003 the defense should be practically invincible.

“I think we’ll show improvement over last season early and we’ll keep getting better,” Mora said. “There’s been so much change over the last couple of years and what you really need is a level of continuity that you must have before you can be an outstanding defense.”

Mora also went on to say that the success of the defense would require a blend of talent and experience. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to know the guy next to you and being familiar enough to know what he’s going to do. Obviously, we haven’t had that. We don’t have the experience but the trade off has been that we’re adding young talent.”

When you look at our defensive secondary for example you see such a jump in marked improvement from where we once were. The keys to that success have been Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster; the first and second round picks from the 2000 NFL Draft.
These corners will be around for awhile, after we tore through an array of corners that never made the standard such as Darnell Walker, Antonio Langham, R.W. McQuarters, Ramos McDonald, Mark McMillian and Monty Montgomery since 1998.

The 49er’s had a sloppy ordeal on defense throughout their pre-season game schedule; they often made missed tackles or poor tackles and failed to generate any kind of a pass rush. In conjunction many times their opponents had good running games as well.

As the regular season got underway Stubblefield was one that defended the learning curve of pre-season and explained what the expectations were for the regular season.

“The pre-season is really no indication of how we can play,” Young said. “We want to go out there and prove ourselves that we can play good defense. As long as we count on one another and play within the framework of the defense and each guy holds their responsibility on their assignments, I think it’s going to be a good day for us.”

The San Francisco 49er’s took a beating in their pre-season series defensively giving up huge yardage to opposing running backs and passing yardage to quarterbacks, however a switch was pulled and the regular season began. Now we find ourselves in a winning column largely due to the playmaking 49er defense.

Even 49er General Manager Terry Donahue expressed concerns as to how the 49er defense would play come the beginning of the regular season. Well so far he has been more than impressed, at the play of these young and promising athletes.

One of the greatest setbacks for the 49er defense in the beginning of the season was the loss of Safety John Keith to an injury in the opener against the Atlanta Falcons. He was retreating to make a block on the 49er’s first kick return one Sunday at 3-Com Park when he made a cut and his left knee gave out.

An MRI exam the following Monday confirmed that Keith tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Atlanta Falcons in a 16-13 overtime victory, and admitted he’s likely out for the season. Keith a promising hard-hitting style safety had just lost his starting status to Safety Zack Bronson.

Keith still was relied on for special teams play and nickel and dime situations, he was also the future of the position as his youth and hard hitting style of play were impressive to coaches and fans alike.

Keith’s rookie campaign in 2000 ended also after he broke his right forearm while covering a kickoff last October against the Raiders. He also underwent off-season surgery on the left knee to repair residual damage from an unrelated college injury, though he said he tore a ligament in the same knee in high school.

“I don’t know if it’s really hit me yet,” Keith said. “I’m just glad they won and had an impressive showing in their first game. As for me, hopefully I can get through this. More than likely, I’ll be ready for next season. I’m a little sick of all the rehab, but at the same time I’ve got to go in motivated to be able to come back again.”

This was a tragic loss to our secondary a role that Ronnie Heard now fills, I was looking forward to having John Keith’s hard hitting self out on the field this season, but circumstances beyond anyone’s control have again hampered that appearance.

The horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Buildings and the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania cast a dark shadow all over the professional football world, on September 11th. The players in San Francisco came together as one and remembered and mourned the tragic losses as all was unfolding.

Safety Lance Schulters lost a high school friend in the attack and has family in the general area, his wife and two daughters live in New Jersey and his parents and where they work are just 10 minutes from the Trade Center Towers. So this attack hit close to home when it happened.

“We’re trying to get back some sort of normalcy, but I still worry about my family,” said Schulters, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. “I’m just out here trying to work and get back to normalcy, (Practicing) did get my mind off it, but it’s still hard. Football just seems so small compared to what’s happening around us. It’s going to take awhile to get used to it.”

Cornerback Jason Webster after the attacks had flashbacks back to when he was in Texas A&M, in which a bonfire tragedy he experienced in 1999, when several thousand logs collapsed and resulted in 12 deaths. “I remember being out there (at Texas A&M) helping move logs out of the way,” Webster said. “Looking at all the wreckage in New York and watching the firefighters moving the wreckage trying to find survivors, it is similar, very similar.”

The horrific tragedies the world and the 49er have had to endure are overwhelming when we talk and reflect back on this incident. I know and many others stand united and strong in face of these outrageous attacks, and totally support the President in what he is doing even today.
I salute the 49er’s and their heroic gesture of support by donating 70 pints of blood to the Red Cross, and I pray for my beloved brethren in these tragic area’s and for the emotional and physical losses everyone including the 49er’s have had to go through.

Game Five against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome spelled voodoo to veteran running back Garrison Hearst, here he was in the very dome that ended his illustrious career at its peak with a devastating injury that sidelined him for over two years.

For the second time the 49er’s were able to make a comeback in overtime and defeat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime 37-31 and go 4-1 as a standing record in the National Football Conference Western Division. Not since 1998 have I seen such a winning combination and mentality as I have seen now.

The list of superstars in this game is numerous, but the one that gets the game ball is none other that veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens. As he caught three touchdowns passes after the break, including a game winning 52-yard beauty with 6:16 remaining in overtime.
Owens finished the day with nine receptions for 183 yards and had touchdown receptions of 52, 17 and 33 yards. Even more unbelievable is that all three came after halftime.

The Falcon defense was able to hold both Owens and Stokes to no catches in the first half of the game, and put enough pressure on 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia to make his life miserable. The Falcons at first to be honest looked invincible as they made it look easy in the first half. They marched 92 yards in eight plays and scored on a three-yard run by running back Maurice Smith.

That drive followed the eight plays, 81-yard scoring drive that the Falcons had to open the game. By halftime the Falcons had seemingly beat us up with the score being 20-7 at halftime, once again the 49er’s struggled to put points on the board in the first quarter and even the half. All was not lost though when the second half sounded, a different team took the field.

What was one remarkable incident was the tenacious durability of Safety Lance Schulters; he played his heart out in this game and put his physical well being on the line in order to help his teammates win.
He was very reminiscent of former hard hitting tough guy 49er safety Ronnie Lott. Schulters left via a stretcher to the locker room with a dislocated shoulder, however it would not eject him from this game, he came right back in.
He dislocated the shoulder while making a tackle on Falcon fullback Bob Christian. He returned after undergoing x-rays and having his shoulder strapped and taped to a harness.

“I had to play because I just knew we were going to win,” Schulters said after the game, his arm held in a sling. “I think I missed one tackle, but overall I think I helped the team. I’m sure it (shoulder) would have hurt a whole lot worse if we had lost.”

Schulters did make a big impact upon returning he finished with five tackles, including hammering Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler on an eight-yard sack. He also dazed Chandler with a viscous tackle following a short run.

The 49er’s proved to be both resilient and explosive in the second half. The 49er’s defense stiffened, holding the Falcons to just 131 yards after the break, and the 49er’s offensive unit began rolling under the leadership and athleticism of Jeff Garcia.

One defensive player that was taken advantage of was cornerback Anthony Parker, when Chandler hit wide receiver Brian Finneran who turned a short gain into a 47-yard touchdown after Parker slipped on the play. Parker continued to get burned with two pass interference penalties in the game. Parker has much more work to do, in order to make these corrections.

This game proved to be exhilarating and very meaningful in the fact that this team, never lost its focus, compared to last season when we lost four very close match-ups. This team continued to play with the utmost confidence that they could win. One instance brings me to the defensive front where Bryant
Young encouraged his teammates to step it up.
After giving up two first quarter touchdowns, the 49er’s troubled defenders took a seat on the bench and goy a stern lecture from defensive tackle Bryant Young, who stood angrily above them.

“It was one of those situations where somebody needed to step up and say something,” Young said. “As one of the veterans on this team, it’s my responsibility to be a leader on this team. For the most part, I think everybody got the message and took it from there.”

“We weren’t playing up to our standard. That’s what I was emphasizing,” Young said. “Regardless of the situation during the game, we have to play up to our standard. We weren’t doing that and I felt needed talk about it because I was (ticked) off about it.”

This is what I am talking about, this is the San Francisco defense of 2001, a unit that has grown and matured beyond comprehension. Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. deserves all the credit in the world for molding this unit into a solid contingent. And the front office deserves credit for the outstanding talent discovered via the draft and free agents signed to help it out.

This is the final series of my three-part look at this 2001 defense, I will continue to follow and write throughout the season on this unit and all it’s accomplishments and completed learning cycle.
But take solace in knowing as a fan that we have had to be patient and endure the heckles and boo’s of many opposing franchises and sports broadcasters and critic’s alike. Our defense is the real thing folks, and the journey is just starting, running backs and quarterbacks beware.

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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