Swiss cheese. That's what the 49ers pass defense was last year against most opponents with quality quarterbacks and receivers.
Never mind that the run-stuffing defense stifled just about every ground game that came at them, the 49ers secondary ended up needing massive amounts of Neosporin and vitamin-E for their "burns."
There are at least two parts to every equation, and in this case the first part is the pass rush.
The term "All Day Alert!" which I recently read about in Jonathan Flaucher's "The Dangers of Buying Into Your Own Hype" went off so frequently last season, I'm now calling it the "All Day Syndrome."
The 3-4 defense the 49ers employ is a balanced system which should allow tough and speedy line backers to make plays in the backfield. Although they often succeeded in hitting running backs before they could get going, San Francisco's hit squad was habitually late to the quarterback.
One can not put all of the pass defense's shortcomings on the blitzers and rushers (plenty of Roddy White's 210 yards in the Atlanta game came after the catch) but it's important to note that a wideout can't catch a pass if the quarterback can't get the ball out. Furthermore, San Francisco managed 44 sacks in 2009—many of which were coverage sacks, which are incredibly taxing on a secondary.
Mike Singletary has never had an issue emphasizing physicality, so the defensive backfield basically just needs to get faster.
The pass rush, on the other hand, is missing one player.
Not one specific player, but one specific type of player: a rangy speedster to rush from the outside. The pass rusher I'm picturing should be long-limbed and able to reach into the pocket and get a hand on the quarterback during his throwing motion in an effort to cause chaos and fumbles.
Picture a player in the mold of Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, or even a young Jason Taylor.
So which young players might fit this mold? In a draft year being called "average" for its stock of pass rushers, here's my short list in order: Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlos Dunlap, Corey Wooten, Clifton Geathers, Lindsay Witten, and Austin Lane.
Hoping this can cure, or at the least treat "All Day Syndrome," how about we put a little ointment on those secondary "burns" now?
The second part of the equation (the defensive backfield) has earned a reputation for toughness around the league. Nate Clements, when healthy, dishes out solid hits and tackles vigorously. Dashaun Goldson is a ball hawk.
After that it tapers off. Newly signed Karl Paymah is simply a journeyman. Micheal Lewis, Shawntae Spencer, and Tarell Brown are adequate. But free agent Dre Bly (who I am embarrassed to admit I was excited to have join the team last season) can go kick rocks after his childish performance against Atlanta.
The hunt for defensive backs begins at corner. There have been rumors that Florida's Joe Hayden could drop to the 49ers at the 13th pick. This would probably be the best option, since Hayden has rarely made a mistake, plays extremely physical, has great instincts, and could likely start as early as the opening week.
Other notable corners to watch for down the board are Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, Myron Lewis, Kyle Wilson, A.J. Jefferson, and Chris Cook.
The 2010 draft has been dubbed "the year of the safety" in some circles. At one point I decided that safety was not a concern for the 49ers and that using a first round pick on one would be a mistake. I've now decided that I was wrong.
While I was busy being wrong, I consistently got mad at mock drafts that had the 49ers taking Taylor Mays in the first round. He seemed over-sized, overrated, and injury prone. It turns out he is big, but freakishly fast (4.31 in the 40) and powerful. He got hurt at one point, but that's football, right? Furthermore, anybody who can spell NFL should be able to name a couple excellent safeties to come out of USC. With the right coaching, Mays could be amazing.
Two other safeties I'm impressed (but not enamoured) by are Tenessee's Eric Berry and Texas' Earl Thomas. These two, however, would cost a first round pick each and tender a first-round salary, which I would not be willing to pay them.
The sleeper I'd be gunning for at safety is Myron Rolle. The cousin of Samari Rolle, Myron has the pedigree. But Myron did take last year off to be Rhodes Scholar, which in addition to questions about his speed, could drop him as far as the fifth round.
As with any rookie, there are other factors that will contribute to shaping their NFL readiness, and the "best player available" strategy is tried and true. Pass rusher and defensive back, however, are areas that will need to be addressed before next fall.