The statistics from 2010 give less than stellar report on the San Francisco 49ers defense. All the key numbers—yards per rush attempt, yards per pass attempt allowed, points per game—ended up in the lower third of the league. Yet, the team has one of the best sets of linebackers in the game and a solid, deep set of defensive linemen. So what went wrong?
No team was worse in making second-half adjustments, and despite exhortations from former head coach Mike Singletary to play harder, the defense grew stale. By mid-season it seemed to grow tired in its effort to overcome the ineptitude of the 49er offense. And if Niner fans learned anything about the team during the glory days in the 1980s and ‘90s, is that a good offense makes your defense better.
That’s the nature of pro football. A 10-point lead in the third quarter pretty much negates the opposition’s running game. More importantly, a team with an offense that puts together long drives means less field time for its defense, keeping players fresher and schemes less familiar.
And yet the Niners should start the draft on defense. Here’s why:
Some others see the Niners going with a defensive end or a linebacker. But remember in 2009, when the team was one of the best against the rush and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin in 2009 was the anchor? Last season, not so much. Perhaps, it was due to missing some training camp. Maybe it was dealing with Singletary. He never got going.
That said, Isaac Sopoaga was just as good. He teamed with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald to provide decent run support and pass rush (Smith, especially). More importantly, his size allowed Willis and Spikes to run free.
On draft day, Auburn DT Nick Fairley of Auburn may fall this far. Same with DE Robert Quinn of North Carolina. But the Niners are committed to the 3-4 and neither fits into that scheme. Moreover, there is greater need in other areas.
Surprise Pick: J.J. Watt of Wisconsin. At 6'5", he does clog the middle, and if available in the middle rounds, would be great value. But here’s where the lockout will hurt a new coaching staff. Those OTA workouts would give an idea if Franklin is ready. Now it’s a guess.
Parys Haralson, Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson are solid against the run and pass, so-so on the blitz. But they were expected in 2010 to be the league’s best. This is one area that new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will stress. In the NFL, linebackers make or break a defense, and this group has to be better.
Should an outside backer/edge rusher like Von Miller of Texas A&M come up when the Niners pick at No. 7, the coaches have to be able to determine if he can elevate the entire defense. Elevate into a dominating force, or is there someone at another position of greater need? If so, that leaves the 49ers hoping to get someone like Akeem Ayers of UCLA in a later round.
It’s only one of those decisions that can make or break the career of a general manager or director of pro personnel.
Surprise Pick: Casey Matthews of Oregon in the sixth round (too much football bloodline to pass up) or Mike Mohamed of Cal (three-year starter) in the seventh as an old-fashioned strong safety.
High-priced cornerback Nate Clements didn’t perform as expected, so this is the team’s prime need. Expect scenarios to be discussed in which draft picks are swapped to move up to the third or fourth slot for CB Patrick Peterson of LSU.
He’s that good—a smothering cornerback who is a demon on blitzes and also can run back punts. Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara is strong cornerback, but he should be available at No. 7.
Look for Fangio to get help at the safety position in the middle rounds with the likes of Rahim Moore from UCLA or Quinton Carter of Oklahoma. (The same thing about OTAs applies to Taylor Mays, who did not come close to playing as well as he should have in 2010.)
Surprise Pick: There are no surprise picks here. Expect plenty of bodies in camp, as cover/blitz schemes will be vital to a defense that is expected to become more diverse and complex under Fangio. It all starts in the secondary.