Updated Outlook for San Francisco 49ers Defense in 2013-2014

Sean GalushaCorrespondent IIAugust 28, 2013

Aug 25, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith (94) tackles Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart (32) during the first quarter at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In Richard Connell's short story The Most Dangerous Game, the mysterious General Zaroff's favorite hobby was hunting people.

Bored with bears and tigers, he decided that an animal with reason posed the most dangerous challenge. 

Jim Harbaugh, a cautious man by habit, hasn't shown any interest in such nefarious exploits.

But anyone who watches football knows the crazy that lurks within the 49ers head coach: the tantrums on the sidelines, the contentious post-game handshakes, the theatrical miming of penalty signals after every missed call. 

It's something that's provided plenty of cannon fodder for sportswriters, and they've pounced on it like a dog starving for the Kroger brand. The turtleneck and the khakis are like Bart Simpson's red t-shirt and shorts. Always there, easy to spot and easier to mock.  

Well, after losing the Super Bowl last January, Harbaugh is set to go into berserker mode once again, and the game has grown much more dangerous.   

The rest of the league should be quivering. Up until Week 9 of last season, the Niners lacked only one final piece to complete their ultimate war machine—but it was the biggest piece, the nucleus, the arc reactor. 

It was something San Francisco had been looking for ever since Hall of Famer Steve Young retired in 1999.  

Ironically, they found it sitting on the bench when Alex Smith went down with a concussion in Week 10 of the regular season. 

With Colin Kaepernick under the controls, the 49ers offense went from averaging 23 points per game to a mind-bending 35 points a contest. San Francisco was the most complete team heading into the playoffs, but it couldn't pull out a Super Bowl victory due to a combination of bad luck, shoddy play-calling and questionable officiating.  

And a broken defense.

If you've never been a big believer in the law of averagesa silly principle which suggests that everything will eventually fall into proper balance over a small sample sizethen I suggest you either attend a statistics lecture or watch the 49ers 2012 season. 

While the arrival of the offense tipped the scales, it didn't have the effect that so many fans and football pundits were expecting. Up until that point, the 49ers relied on a Judo approach to win games.

Under the watchful eye of Jim Harbaugh, they broke the will of their opponents without ever having to deliver a knockout blow, instead relying on a mistake-free ground and pound strategy that was forged by the NFL's founding fathers.   

Defense after all, wins games.

However, the addition of a sleek, gun-slinging quarterback changed the Red and Gold Honda Accord to a 12-cylinder Ferrarifrom safe and reliable to Fast and Furious. 

As the 49ers lit up the scoreboard like a Tron megascape, the defense suddenly became very permeable. Opposing quarterbacks dropped bombs all over the field and often hit a target, resulting in big gains and in some cases six easy points.

The games were rollicking and vomit-inducing. Quarters flew by like seconds on the play clock and the final outcome often left viewers on the edge of their couch, reaching for one final Cheeto to munch on. 

Shootouts are awesome, that is, when it's not your own team coming out on the wrong end. And considering the amount of talent the 49ers have on the defensive side of the ball, what happened last year in the playoffs shouldn't become a regular thing this season. 

The money question: can the San Francisco defense be dominant once again?

One of the biggest concerns this offseason has been the condition of Justin Smith. When the 49ers lost Smith late last November in New England, the effect was immediate and demoralizing. The Patriots scored 31 unanswered points in the second half with Smith off the field, and the Seahawks hung up 42 the next week in front of 70,000 delirious fans at CenturyLink Field.

It's amazing how the absence of one player can affect everything from defending the run, the pass and creating pressure up front—and it reinforces the belief that Smith is the main engine of the 49ers defense.

The real proof on the field was the disappearance of quarterback-hunter Aldon Smith. With Justin doing the dirty work in the trenches and constantly drawing double teams, Aldon racked up 19.5 sacks and had a shot at Michael Strahan's single season mark of 22.5. When offensive lines saw Smith MIA, his younger counterpart became a mere annoyance—a fly buzzing around an elephant.

Smith failed to register another sack for the rest of the season and the playoffs.

From the looks of things, the Cowboy is back and ready to terrorize offenses once again. With another year of growth, Aldon Smith may become one of the most dangerous pass-rushers in NFL history.  

Along with NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers will fire up the thrusters on a high-octane linebacker corps ready to rampage and pillage their victims after every snap.

With Justin Smith and Ray McDonald bludgeoning bodies up front, the only real weakness in the front seven is at defensive tackle. Harbaugh and Trent Baalke knew what they were doing when they let go of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, but they didn't exactly make the seams vanish by acquiring first-round bust Glenn Dorsey.

Though effective against the run, Dorsey couldn't pressure a quarterback with a spear gun and the 49ers' most glaring weakness in the playoffs was allowing Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan upwards of about eight seconds in the slot to throw the football.

Regardless, the addition of Dorsey doesn't downgrade the defense or the pass rush from last season.  

The 49ers defense is still a moat. Running backs won't cross the line of scrimmage without getting throttled, but teams will continue to attack them relentlessly through the air. Considering the question marks in the secondary, this is a problem that can't be hidden behind the nearest bush. 

Nobody was surprised when Dashon Goldson left the team to sign a long-term deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Knowing that Kaepernick probably won't be asking for $700,000 in the foreseeable future, Baalke and Harbaugh took their chances and allowed their Pro Bowl safety to split. 

They filled that void nicely by trading up in the first round for Eric Reid, who has impressed so far in the preseason and was recently named the team's starting safety for the Week 1 matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

While it will take time for Reid to adjust to the speed of the game, he has displayed the kind of work ethic Harbaugh handpicks in his players and may eventually become an improvement over Goldson, who was great at generating turnovers with his paralyzing hits but prone to drawing penalties and getting burned on the fly route.     

Bottom line, the safety duo of Whitner and Reid looks promising, but the 49ers also have a nice contingency plan in veteran Craig Dahl if things don't pan out.

So...good right?

Now we've come to the cornerbacks, and this is where things get murky. Widely considered the weakest element in Vic Fangio's fortress, there was a collective feeling that the 49ers would use their abundance of draft picks to acquire a shutdown corner like Darrelle Revis.

Instead, they wisely chose to plan for the future and stuck with the status quo of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. The only significant addition they made was snatching Nnamdi Asomugha off the Eagles' garbage lot—though it's not far-fetched to think the veteran can make a turnaround back in the Bay Area. 

While Brown improved his game last season, his contract situation—funny as it is—might become a very real distraction. The word is out that the 49ers are trying to come up with a fair solution, though it might be better for Tarell to actually take notes this time around.    

Rogers experienced a significant regression after a Pro Bowl season in 2011, and another year may push him into further decline. If the 49ers actually did pursue a premier cornerback in the offseason, Carlos would likely be No. 3 on the depth chartwhich wouldn't be bad given recent unfortunate events.

With the season-ending injury to Chris Culliver, the 49ers will become more vulnerable whenever they bring out the nickel defense, and their success on third and long will be largely dependent on whether Asomugha, C.J. Spillman and Tramaine Brock can effectively shadow second-tier receivers.

So there you have it. A ludicrous front seven, a pair of wrecking balls at safety and a sturdy but breakable fleet of corners.        

Harbaugh and Baalke didn't make any immediate improvements to a unit which struggled late last season and in the playoffs, and Eric Reid is unlikely to have the same kind of impact Dashon Goldson had on the field for at least another year or two. 

From the looks of it, the 49ers are counting on the return of Justin Smith and their shiny new offense to offset any of the shortcomings they couldn't fix in the draft or via trade.    

It makes you think about how Bill Belichick had all those great defenses in the early aughts that brought the Patriots three Super Bowl titles. Then the defense went on a sabbatical and New England started scoring (and giving up) 73 points a game. They've gone 0-2 in the big dance ever since. 

To be sure, the Niners aren't the Patriots. All the No. 1 rankings we've seen online and on television is the result of having TWO insanely talented units. But considering all the injuries and question marks, San Francisco is still far away from the '84 and '89 teams that were considered among the best in history.

Those squads were known for having no equals. 

It's something to think about.  After all, Zaroff finally met his match in the end. 


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