From 1981-'82 through 1994-'95, the San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowl titles and from 1996-2002 were a perennial playoff contender. But since the departure of quarterback Jeff Garcia, the 49ers' organization has fell on hard times.
Since their dramatic come-from-behind wild-card victory over the Giants in 2002, the 49ers have gone 25-55 over the past five seasons. This year, they are off to a 2-2 start, but with an inexperienced quarterback and a young defense, they may be prone for another losing season.
But there is one main key that can return them to their glory days: a pass rush.
Now, being a 17-year-old high-school student, I can't say I remember much of the 49er dynasty of the 1980s, in fact, I wasn't even born yet. However, even though I was only three at the time, the fifth 49ers Super Bowl championship team in the 1994 season is a team I know by heart.
Of course, it all started with quarterback Steve Young (whose jersey will be retired at halftime tomorrow, during the 49ers' game with the Patriots), who led the league in passing in 1994.
But there was also the greatest receiver of all-time in Jerry Rice, running back Ricky Waters, rookie fullback William Floyd, tight end Brent Jones, and opposite Rice was receiver John Taylor.
On defense, there were key free-agent acquisitions in 1994, including Deion "Prime-time" Sanders, Gary Plummer, and Ken Norton Jr. This team was full of stars, but if it weren't for two defensive lineman, the season would not have been what it was. Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield made the 49ers a championship-caliber football team.
Dana Stubblefield was the defensive Rookie of the Year in the 1993-'94 season, and Bryant Young won it in his rookie season of 1994-'95 which also brought him his one and only Super Bowl ring.
These two men filled up the gaps and took on double teams, allowing linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer to punish the likes of Troy Aikman, Jeff George, and Erik Kramer.
Without these big boys up the middle, there would not have been the "high-steppin" of Deion Sanders, or that classic dance by Merton Hanks. Both Stubblefield and Young provided a push up front that no other 1994 team could match.
As great as Bryant Young was, he could not play forever, and he retired last year after 14 seasons with the team that drafted him: the 49ers. However, the depressing thing for 49er fans is that BY was our best pass rusher for every single one of those 14 seasons. Even in the late stages of his career, when BY had clearly lost a step or two, the 49ers organization had not drafted anyone to replace him.
Over the past five losing seasons for the 49ers, they have had spirts of greatness. Alex Smith had one of the most memorable games of recent years in '06, when he led the 49ers to victory in Seattle. And last year, the 49ers got off to a quick 2-0 start. That team had talent, just like they do this year; there is only one problem. Where is their pass rush?
Clearly, the 49ers have talent on defense, they have shutdown cornerback Nate Clements, Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris, and veteran safeties Mark Roman and Michael Lewis make up the most veteran secondary in the NFL.
They also have reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Patrick Willis, at linebacker, along with Takeo Spikes and recently injured Manny Lawson. This defense has talent, but the problem over the last five seasons has been the defensive line.
And what did the 49ers do? They paid big money to Justin Smith, formerly of the Bengals? So far, I have liked what I have seen from him this year, but he is no Bryant Young, and bringing in one guy is not going to get the job done. Other 49er D-lineman include Aubrayo Franklin, Ronald Fields, and Isaac Sopoaga.
If you're not a 49er fan, you're probably thinking "who?" Which is exactly my point; the 49ers need some help on the defensive line. Now, whether that comes from activating Tully Banta-Cain for tomorrow's game against the Patriots, or from a midseason trade, we will have to see, but if the 49ers are serious about making a run for the playoffs this year, they need to address that awful pass rush.
So far this year, the 49ers' secondary has seemed rather weak, but they have not been given any help from the defensive line. Kurt Warner and Drew Brees specifically have picked apart the 49ers' defense.
But the key for the 49ers to turn that around is to blitz, blitz, blitz. Clements and Harris can patrol the perimeter, while they load up eight in the box and bring pressure all day. It is quite simple, really; take a look at the top defenses in the league today, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—all known to bring pressure.
This week for the 49ers, it would be a good idea for them to bring the pressure. Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel has only two career starts, but if he gets comfortable early, the 49ers will be in loads of trouble with the high-powered New England offense.
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