49ers Pass Defense: Secondary Burn Treatment

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IJune 3, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 12:  Dashon Goldson #38 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled after he intercepted a pass in the third quarter by Roberto Garza #63 of the Chicago Bears at Candlestick Park on November 12, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

"Our philosophy on first and second down is to stop the what? Stop the run..."

There's some debate who said it first, but Greg Manusky said it recently in a session of the 49ers' coach-run Football 101 .  He continued: "...and play outstanding pass protection, we will play zone, man-to-man, blitz in any situation with different personal groups. In all situations, we will defend the inside, or the middle of the field."

I believe they will stop the run—no doubt whatsoever—but the coverage will certainly need to be there.

The NFC West division sports the talents of Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Dion Branch, John Carlson, Donnie Avery, and now Golden Tate and Mardy Gilyard.

Adding the fact that San Francisco plays the Saints in Week Two, the Falcons Week Three (from whom the 49ers received third-degree burns last season), Packers Week 13 (who also burned us), and the Chargers week 15; and you've got more than a little need for a tight pass defense.

Although the pass rush figures need to be improved in 2010, the coverage will need to be there, and it will.


Corner Backs

Corners Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, and Tarell Brown are likely to blanket opposing receivers.

Many fans have called for the movement of Nate Clements to free safety, but given his ten-year career numbers at corner, a move isn't likely. His tough, physical style can be a pain to play against, though he was sidelined with a fractured shoulder blade for the final nine weeks last season.

Spencer comes in with six years of experience in the defensive backfield. Typically not as physical as Clements, Spencer plays a smooth and steady cover man, and could breakout as a shutdown corner this year.

Brown comes back again as a young up-and-comer, capable of making the most of the opportunities he gets. Drafted in 2007, Brown's still a young talent, whose abilities are growing proportionally to his NFL experience.


Dashon Goldson and Micheal Lewis will anchor the defenders of the middle, as rookie monster Taylor Mays looms as a potential x-factor and huge play maker.

Goldson returns as a play maker with good size and excellent range. His ball-hawk style makes him an ideal candidate for the free safety position, and he set career highs in every category, starting all 16 games last season.

The 6'1" 220-pound Lewis, on the other hand, fills in nicely at strong safety as an imposing defensive back. He was among the leagues leading tacklers last year, and carries eight valuable years of NFL experience with him—including his four NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl during his five NFL seasons with the Eagles.

How good can Taylor Mays be?

The answer is he could be real good—potentially the best—potentially, and eventually.  Mays' draft status as a workout-warrior, and slip in production from early college to 2009 season at USC left him free falling to the middle of the second round. Keep in mind that some of the unripe mock drafts had San Francisco taking Mays with their first pick, or even trading up to get him.

Standing at 6'3", the 230-pounder has been projected to play everywhere from free safety to outside linebacker. I think they'll use him where ever he's needed, and as he fine tunes his knowledge and technique to fit the NFL, the 49ers will figure out where he fits best in the long run.


The nickel, dime, and even occasional quarter packages are far from determined; it's only early June. Still, a handful of defensive backs—from rookies to veterans—have been brought in throughout the off-season.

Phillip Adams and LeRoy Vann are among the more notable rookies. Adams plays with a physical style that the 49ers love, whereas Vann has stood out as a return man in college.

Ten-year veteran Will James, and five-year man Karl Paymah, are among the more conspicuous free-agent acquisitions.

Third-year player Reggie Smith and six-year man Keith Smith will also scrap it out for roster spots over the summer.


The same defense that frustrated the Cardinals, tortured the Rams, and came away with five interceptions against the Bears is the same defense that was torched by Atlanta, Green Bay, and Houston. The same passing defenders that sacked Peyton Manning more times than he'd been touched all year in Week Eight last season also allowed him to pass for over 300 yards that game.

This didn't go unnoticed. Measures have been taken to strengthen the secondary. It's going to be a dogfight for roster spots, all the way to the final 53.

When the dust settles, expect nothing less than a defensive backfield that is vastly improved in talent and depth—and expect them to play outstanding pass defense in zone coverage, man-to-man coverage, and to blitz in any situation.