Yesterday, I looked at the keys to an improved offense this coming season, which got me a ripe umbrage tomato heaved out of the crowd and splattered against my schnozz. Today, I’ll look at the defense, while the neighborhood kid stands ready to take one in the chops for the old guy should soggy missiles fly my way again. These kid stooges cost a lot more than the quarter I used to get for being an adult guinea pig.
The 49er defense is pretty damn good already and does not have to make the quantum leap the offense needs to accomplish this year. It is not a lock down defense in the mold of the ’86 Bears, but excels at keeping opponents out of the end zone, finishing 4th in points allowed last year, but much further down the list in yardage given up per game.
It also was torched by Atlanta, Green Bay, and Houston. Some say this occurred because our secondary wasn’t fast enough, but all three of these games occurred in the first half of the season when Dashon Goldson was still breaking himself in as a full time starter at FS. So maybe that had something to do with it. There might also have been a let down during these games due to the ineptitude of the offense that led to the benching/scapegoating of Shaun Hill.
At any rate, Goldson’s maturity and level of play in the latter part of last season, suggest the secondary will be slightly improved from last year. Tarell Brown got his first taste of extensive action last year, also, and should be improved this year as he settles into the 3rd CB role. He is probably the key to any significant improvement in the secondary. Last year, his play was up and down. It must be consistent and a notch up the step-it-up ladder this year.
It’s hard to see the Dline being anything more than about the same as last year. Abrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoagna, and Justin Smith are all veterans and form a solid unit. Behind them, are two guys who need to improve this year or run the risk of being phased out. Kentwan Balmer enters his 3rd year and needs to start pressing Sopoagna for playing time or face a long year being called a bust by Sophrosyne and probably a growing chorus of others. Ray McDonald has played well, especially considering the banged up condition of his knees. This condition was dealt with medically last season and this year, with a full year of health behind him, he really needs to become more of a force in his role of nickel pass rushing Dlineman. Though our line is stout against the run, it does not create much push directly up the gut on pass plays and that is where McDonald can make the unit more of a force.
Which brings us to the linebackers. Patrick Willis enters his 4th year and should be settling into his prime as a perhaps the best inside linebacker in the NFL, but two outside linebackers, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson, are the keys to pushing the defense from very good to dominant.
Haralson’s play as the primary sack man fell off last year from the year before. It was revealed in the off season that he had been bothered all year by a hip-pointer injury, which would help explain his ineffectiveness. Apparently, these pointing hip deals affect the ability of a player to lift his knee upward. Perhaps there’s a doctor in the house who can provide a more succinct diagnosis. If this explanation isn’t just so much balderdash to cover up for giving this guy a pay raise two years ago and expecting him to be a double-digit sack guy, then we should expect him to, in fact, be a double-digit guy this year.
But Brooks is the most intriguing fellow on the defense, IMHO (get ready kid, I may have to duck here). After floundering around for a few years in the league as an underachieving headcase, Mother Singletary took him under his wing and nursed him forward towards his best self, which sprang forth upon the league in the final six games of last year, as he forcefully threw down six sacks in those six games. If that effort wasn’t a flash in the pan performance, then a full year of the new and improved Brooksie could give the 49ers a Dwight Freeney type terror that could push this defense from very good to dominating. A three and out machine that would finally put an end to this annoying habit the 49ers defense has developed of letting opposing QBs stand back in the pocket for a ridiculously long time waiting for our DBs to finally lose containment of their WR assignments or Manny Lawson to finally get one of his coverage sacks – whichever occurs first, and meanwhile the fans are turning blue holding their breath.
Our sack totals jumped last year from 30 to 44, landing us in the top 10 in the league for team sacks. But critics have pointed out, with justification, that a good chunk of these sacks occurred in bunches against bad teams, and not much at all against good teams. That is the key for this defense to be considered improved. Quality, timely sacks.