Fielding a defense

Feb 8, 2007 at 5:39 AM


San Francisco 49er fans know that the main squeeze that affected our team’s overall success in 2006 was the much maligned defense that registered at number 26 in the NFL last season and allowed more points per game (28.5) than any other team in the league.

Standing and pacing on the sidelines, so did head coach Mike Nolan, who more often than not could be seen shouting or huddling along the sidelines with groups or even individual defensive players on a routine basis.

It has been said “once a defensive coordinator, you’re always a defensive coordinator.” This same rule could be seen playing out during the course of this turbulent season that saw its peaks and valleys with each and every week that passed.

Although there were high points and low points this seasons, as we look back and reflect on our defense, the transparency of veteran savvy leadership and inexperience talent wise along with the lack of execution via sound tackling really exposed our defense for what it was.

And now we have the financial muscle necessary to go out and acquire a few key individual players that portray just what we are looking for. We are sitting pretty with a league-high $41.2 million in salary cap room in 2007, of which we can more than just explore what free agency has to offer.

On top of all that money that we haven’t seen in decades, the 49ers are now staring at a total of 10 draft picks with maybe even more coming by way of compensation from the league. In fact the 49ers have eight total picks assembled just within the first four rounds of this year’s draft.

The defense will be the direct target of this year’s draft under Vice President of Personnel Scot McCloughan and in head coach Mike Nolan. As in the past two drafts the 49ers selected mostly offensive talent in order to surround quarterback Alex Smith with the cast he needed to become successful.

Mike Nolan was forced to go with the 4-3 alignment defensive scheme rather than the 3-4 defensive alignments of which he was accustomed to as the defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. He did that mostly out of necessity because of the defensive personnel at his disposal.

After a 2-5 start on the 2006 NFL season the 49ers were subject to two of those losses being blowout losses of 41-0 at Kansas City and 41-10 at Chicago. The 49ers managed to continue on and go 5-4 in their last nine games, of which they put together a three-game winning streak that positioned them for a wildcard playoff spot until Arizona eliminated them in Week 16.

In that three-game winning streak the 49er defense came up big after being literally ripped apart on a losing binge after the first seven games of the season. Big questions were raised about the competency of the defensive minds behind the brawn, so-to-speak, as this season came to an end with a thrilling overtime victory against the Denver Broncos that eliminated them from the postseason.

In fact, so many questions had been circulating about that just two days after the season came to its sudden conclusion for the 49ers. Mike Nolan summoned both defensive line coach Gary Emanuel and defensive coordinator Billy Davis to his office and gave them both their walking papers.

It was a strong message from Mike Nolan that despite the visual improvements that had been seen throughout the season with the defensive unit, it just wasn’t enough to validate accepting the status quo for yet another season.

Change had to come and it would come full circle with Mike Nolan. He wants to be able to manage the game as it unfolds on the field and not have to be an active participant to the point that he is finding himself coaching on the sideline rather than managing the game.

He handpicked offensive coordinator Norv Turner to run the San Francisco 49er offense and to be that angelic voice in Alex Smith’s ear all at the same time. He was successful in acquiring a seasoned brilliant mind to run the 49er offense despite the fact that it is the first 49ers coordinator to stray wildly off the path of the typical West Coast Offense.

There wasn’t any question about the players not liking both Davis and Emanuel because they were both liked. In fact Emanuel was surprised that he had been fired after spending eight years at Purdue. Soon after hearing the news he sat down and had dinner with several of the defensive linemen.

Billy Davis was a first time defensive coordinator after serving as linebacker’s coach for the New York Giants just two years ago. He was also well liked by the players but was finding himself in direct contradiction with Mike Nolan who felt he had to call most of the plays, scout the opposition and formulate the defensive game plans.

Thus it resulted in both of them being fired. The San Francisco 49ers have put the NFL on notice that change has come and that the defense will be refurbished to become a feared element of our overall game plan.

It starts with acquiring the coaching staff that will be articulate with its game plans and develop personnel to fit the desired 3-4 defensive attack that will keep opponents guessing what’s coming next.

In their gun sights via free agency that starts March 2nd, 2007 and the up and coming NFL draft, the 49ers are seeking a big nose tackle, a pass rushing defensive end, one or even perhaps two outside linebackers, a cornerback and a safety are among the positions in dire need of an instant upgrade.

Despite the setbacks the 49ers did improve defensively from 2005 after ranking last in the league in yards allowed. The one area they often failed to improve was in third-down efficiency, as they failed 44.4 % of the time. The 49ers also went on to surrender a league-worst 25.8 points a game on top of all that.

And the 49ers pass rush was almost non-existent when you really analyze it. It produced only 34 sacks, which is below the NFL average (36.4). Rookie Manny Lawson was specifically drafted to be a pass rusher but had only one-half sack in his last 14 games and finished with 2.5 on the entire year. In fact it was fifth-year linebacker Brandon Moore that had the most with 6.5 recorded on the season.

The 49ers will definitely be in the market for a veteran presence that can apply instant heat on a quarterback at any point. It has been far too long since we have been able to sustain any kind of pressure on a quarterback and I expect even greater things to come from Manny Lawson down the line in his second season combined with a free agent seasoned talent to take it over the top.

Mike Nolan looked outside the box in seeking out his next defensive line coach to replace Gary Emanuel. He found Jim Tomsula, who was the only candidate interviewed by Nolan for the position.

Tomsula has a successful track record as a defensive coach and was the head coach of NFL Europe’s Rein Fire last season. From there he coached three players who were on the 49ers final roster in 2006; offensive tackle Harvey Dahl, guard/center Tony Wragge and guard Nick Steitz. The Rein Fire went 5-4 last year in Tomsula’s only season with the team.

“Jim has a great track record of success in NFL Europe and has earned the opportunity to step up to the National Football League,” Nolan said. “He is an outstanding teacher and he’s had a great rapport with the players wherever he has coached. He has had success as a defensive line coach, defensive coordinator and head coach in NFL Europe, and he also has experience coaching numerous college all-star games.”

Jim joined NFL Europe in 1998 as defensive line coach with the England Monarchs. He then went on to have five seasons as defensive line coach with the Scottish Claymores, where he established his identity and his reputation for producing some of the most dominant lines in the league.

While with the Berlin Thunder for two seasons as the defensive coordinator, in his first season they led the league in rushing defense on their way to victory over the Frankfurt Galaxy in World Bowl XII.

Jim Tomsula is also an adherent of the 3-4 defense, a scheme he adopted for most of his career with NFL Europe. Mike Nolan is insistent on moving away from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 and needs someone like Tomsula to assist him in finding the right players to fill that need.

I am excited to see Mike Nolan going out of the box in finding definitive young coaching talent that is hungry to make the difference. I am certain that Jim Tomsula, based upon his credentials, will be a sound fit for the San Francisco defensive line that is in dire need of an overhaul.

When you look at the defensive line, you see a unit that is in emergency status based upon the personnel we have outside of veteran superstar Bryant Young who is still mulling whether he’ll be back or not. He is leaning towards coming back and being a part of the franchise he is so revered for helping to preserve despite the chaos and turmoil that has been evident since the Dennis Erickson era.

You can rest assured that Mike Nolan will be looking to add someone prominent via free agency and the draft to assist him in generating the heat on the quarterback that we have been unable to do since he was teamed with Brentson Buckner and Dana Stubblefield. In every sense of the word we need an athlete capable of penetration and forcing the enemy to account for multiple threats.

Unrestricted free agent Anthony Adams is not expected back because of his lack of ability and girth to plug the middle of the line. Isaac Sapoaga, who has also been inserted from time to time to play nose tackle, has lacked the ability to make penetration as was expected from him when we first drafted him. The 49ers will look to bring in stiff competition to alleviate these concerns with a defined plan in mind.

As former defensive line coach Gary Emanuel was replaced by Jim Tomsula, so was former defensive coordinator Billy Davis replaced by former San Diego Chargers linebackers coach Greg Manusky. Mike Nolan did a whirlwind interview process that included candidates such as Jacksonville Jaguar assistant Dave Campo and New York Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and briefly entertained his assistant in Mike Singletary for the post as well.

In the end, he settled on Greg Manusky. We need someone that can stop the bleeding we have seen as our defense gave up the most points in the league this past season and ranked last place in the NFL in total defense in 2005.

Manusky comes with sound credentials and a built-up reputation as a special team standout during a 12-year NFL playing career, which consisted of tours with the Washington Redskins (1988-90), Minnesota Vikings (1991-93) and Kansas City Chiefs (1994-99). He started his coaching career in Washington under Marty Schottenheimer, who then brought Manusky to San Diego the next year when he assumed the title of San Diego’s head coach.

Although this would be a first-time coordinator position for Manusky, he is very familiar with the 3-4 scheme that Mike Nolan wants to apply here in San Francisco. He has coached San Diego’s linebackers in that same scheme now for the past five seasons.

To have both Tomsula and Manusky on the same page and working cohesively together on this favored defensive scheme would enhance our ability to shoot up in ranking for the next season as an overall defense.

The San Francisco 49ers are also looking at linebackers and secondary personnel via free agency and the up and coming draft to help deter a last place ranking in total defense in 2007. Of the high-profile free agents at linebacker, the Baltimore Ravens’ Adalius Thomas rings a distinct bell along with Chicago Bears’ linebacker Lance Briggs.

The need at this position was further indicated based upon the mediocre seasons of both Jeff Ulbrich and veteran Derek Smith. The performance of both players prompted Mike Nolan to insert Brandon Moore into the starting lineup and even resulted in a long-term contract for him as his performance provided absolute results.

Moore, will be looked to in anchoring this unit and helping rookie Manny Lawson mature into the ideal threat that we all envisioned him to be when we drafted him in the first round of last year. Mike Nolan may make a pitch to Adalius Thomas based upon his experience with him as his defensive coordinator back in Baltimore.

In the secondary the 49ers are smiling all the way to the bank in their free agency deal last season with cornerback Walt Harris. He repaid our trust in him by spelling a Pro-Bowl type season that was both exciting and electric to watch. We are in need of throwing in some high-caliber talent to help compete between Harris and Shawntae Spencer in training camp and into the pre-season.

High-caliber free agents such as Buffalo Bills Nate Clements and New England Patriots Asante Samuel come to mind. Both would provide an instant upgrade in the secondary and encourage competition between all factions there. Out of the three, one would be the ideal nickel back that would be critical to providing an extra security blanket against the enemies passing game.

A safety is also needed to provide competition between newly signed Mark Roman and Keith Lewis along with back-up safeties in Chad Williams and Mike Adams. The 49ers took a bold step in locking up Roman to a long-term contract after taking that starting position away from veteran Tony Parrish.

Keith Lewis should be offered a tender as a restricted free agent as he came in late in the season and made an immediate upgrade to a soft underbelly that opponents took clear advantage of.

In all, the San Francisco 49ers have definitive needs in all defensive areas on this team. It is something that is on the minds of both Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan as they approach free agency and the 2007 NFL draft.

We need to be able to field a unit that is able to make third down attempts by the opposition an impossibility. We need to field a unit that can bring heat and knock balls out of the air and that includes the quarterback laying on the ground.

The San Francisco 49ers will finally meet the brainwaves of defensive expertise in regards to Mike Nolan and his ability to pick and teach defensive personnel. The time of building a defense after concentrating on the offense the past two seasons is finally here.

So look out, because I see real radical changes happening right before our eyes as this off-season unravels into our favor. Based on the salary cap health and the abundance of draft picks at our beck and call, we will become a legitimate defense almost immediately.
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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