Defense Holds Keys to Championship

Jun 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM


Montana to Rice. The Catch. The West Coast offense. "The Genius" Bill Walsh. Memories of the 49ers glory years focus on the dominating offense, scorching opponents and lighting up scoreboards every fall weekend. The defense has always been appreciated by football aficionados, but is often underscored in importance compared to the offense's success.

Most fans mark January 10, 1982 as the date the 49ers dynasty began. As Dwight Clark fell to the ground, with ball firmly in hand, America's team was defeated and NFL supremacy had finally been established in the city by the bay. As memorable as that moment was in 49ers lore, April 28th and 29th, 1981 was the beginning of the 49er dynasty.

On these dates, the 1981 NFL draft took place, and San Francisco picked the foundations for their decade of dominance in the draft. Ronnie Lott (8th Overall, USC) was picked first, a hard hitting cornerback and safety who changed the opponents offensive strategy the moment he stepped onto the field. Eric Wright (40th overall, Missouri) was plucked in the second round, giving the 49ers a second solid corner. San Francisco also added two University of Pittsburgh products in Carlton Williamson (65th overall) and Lynn Thomas (121st overall).

The 49ers also acquired Jack Reynolds to provide a run stuffer at linebacker and stole defensive end Fred Dean from San Diego for a second round pick midway through the season. Alongside Keena Turner, Dwight Hicks and Dwaine Board, the 49ers finally had a solid defensive nucleus, and the makings of a championship team.

While the offense has taken the majority of the highlight films in San Francisco over the last 20+ years, defense has always been at the heart of the teams success. The 2003 version of the 49ers can learn a lesson from that first championship team.

The defense seemed to show progress two years ago, posting three shutouts in the last six games of the season, and held NFC runner-up Philadelphia to three points in a critical game at home in December. This was the game the 49ers came up with a goal line stand reminiscent of the 1981 team's stand against the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. This was a statement to the rest of the NFL that the 49ers defense was back.

But after a season in which the defense gave up an incredible 46.9 percent third down conversion rate, worst in the NFL, it's hard to say this defense worries anyone.

Fans seem to point their finger at the rash of injuries the team had, depleting their depth and overall team speed. The losses of Jaime Winborn and Zach Bronson were a big part of their inefficiency as a unit, but not all blame can be attributed to this. Terry Donahue recognizes that to win a championship in this league, the 49ers need a strong defense to get them there.

"I think if you look at the champions in the NFL the last few years, those were good defensive teams," Terry Donahue said before the draft, "All of us want to have good defensive teams."

A big part of the problem is the ineffectiveness of the defensive line in passing situations. Aside from Andre Carter, who looks poised to be a stud at defensive end for the next decade, their was no pass rush.

At right defensive end, Chike Okeafor amassed six sacks last year, but three of them came in the first three games of the season. After that, he seemed like a forgotten man, until he almost cost the team the Divisional playoff game, if not for the referees blunder. His replacement, John Engelberger, has battled injuries his entire career, and in his three years in the league, has only 7 sacks to his credit, never posting more than four in a season (2001). He will need to improve dramatically this year for the 49ers to possess any semblance of a pass rush.

Up the middle of the line, the team shows its age. Dana Stubblefield returned the 49ers in 2001 looking little like the defensive player of the year he was in 1997, his last year with the team. He was an invaluable run stuffer, but provided little help in passing situations. Stubblefield posted three sacks last season, tops amongst the interior lineman. But he fled to Oakland in the offseason.

"Certainly the loss of Dana Stubblefield and Chike Okeafor are losses that any team would feel, but we'll replace those players adequately," Donahue said. "We fully expect to play better defense this year than we did last year."

Stubblefield's replacement, a rotation of Jim Flanigan and Josh Shaw breeds little hope considering their recent play. Flanigan amassed only 12 tackles and one sack last season, and hasn't posted more than six sacks in any season since 1998. He has never been asked to rush the quarterback, instead providing steady run support. Flanigan, 31, is a solid backup and can spell starters effectively, but is not the answer at DT.

Josh Shaw has been ineffective since drafted out of Michigan State two years ago. He has three career tackles and one sack, receiving playing time in only two games last season.

"We've got some veteran players there, it's going to be interesting," Erickson said. "We've got some depth there with what I think are pretty darn good players.

Bryant Young has provided the 49ers with a top defensive lineman since he came to the team from Notre Dame in 1994. Before his devastating knee injury injure in 1998, Young was the best defensive lineman in the game. However, age and injuries have hurt his effectiveness, and can no longer be relied on to shoulder the entire burden of creating a pass rush. In 2001, he posted only 3.5 sacks, not the contribution you need from a former All-Pro. Bryant is not to blame for the teams defensive line problem, he still posts good numbers in run support and is an emotional leader for the team.

The team needed an infusion of new talent on the line and Erickson recognized this before the draft.

"We're always looking to acquire pass rushers and guys that can cover. So you'll see us at some point try to make a move in one of those areas."

The 49ers then selected DT Anthony Adams from Penn State in the second round and DE Andrew Williams in the third, and seemed elated with their acquisitions.

"The fact that we were able to get an inside pass rusher, who has exceptional quickness and one who we think could be real disruptive inside, and an outside pass rusher, which is again a player who we think has exceptional speed and who will be able to come off the corner with a very high degree of intensity and speed, will help our pass rush which we needed to help," Donahue said.

However, Adams was overshadowed on the Penn State defensive line by teammates Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes, both selected in the first round, and is relatively small at 5-11 for a defensive tackle. But he possesses a strong motor and his impressive senior bowl showed flashes of potential.

Williams was overshadowed by the entire Miami team, but is a raw talent and with good coaching could see significant playing time this season.

"Williams is going to have an opportunity to compete," Erickson said. "To me, it's a matter of what role will Andrew play. That's the biggest thing. He's a guy that's going to get some time for us. We just got to find out what he does the best and the things that he can do that makes us a better team."

Williams hurt his hand in a mini camp in May, and had surgery to repair the damage.

The additions of DT Travis Kirschke (Lions)and DT Ross Kolodziej (Giants), are also less inspiring. Kirschke has three career sacks and Kolodziej has none. Other than providing help to a lost scrabble player, these players can't be counted on to contribute.

Adams and Williams provide hope for the future, but the team enters the 2003 season with two backups from last year entering a starting lineup that was in the lower half of the league in sacks.

The pressure will be on Engelberger and the trio of Adams, Flanigan and Shaw to create enough pressure to help the corners in coverage. The key to the line this season will be Engelberger, already solid in run support, he to improve his rush in passing situations.

Coming out of Virginia Tech in 2000, Engelberger was thought to be a steal in the second round. He was a second team All-American his senior season, recording 53 tackles and 7 sacks. Injuries have limited his effectiveness as a pro, and the team will need him to reach his promise if they are going to upgrade their pass rush from the right side.

"He played more the year before than Chike did. It's his position," Erickson said about Engelberger. "He's stepped up. He's stepped up in the off-season, and he's had a damn good mini-camp, too."

If Engelberger doesn't step up, the team can look to Julian Peterson for help. After a breakthrough Pro Bowl season a year ago in which he registered tackles and sack, Peterson has the wherewithal to handle defensive end in passing situations. Rushing the quarterback isn't foreign territory for the fourth year man from Michigan State, he tallied 25 sacks in 23 games during his college career for the Spartans, including 15 his senior season. The team could place the speedy Saleem Rasheed and Jaime Winborn at linebacker with nickel coverage in the secondary, to prevent the third down disasters from a year ago.

Nevertheless, something needs to be done to create a pass rush, because the defense cannot repeat the lapses they had in passing situations a year ago. If they can't create more pressure on the quarterback, even Lott, Williamson and Wright couldn't help this defense.
The views 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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