Lewis at Strong Safety Leaves 49ers Weak in Secondary

Michael ErlerCorrespondent ISeptember 1, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - 2009:  Michael Lewis of the San Francisco 49ers poses for his 2009 NFL headshot at photo day in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by NFL Photos)

Is it me, or does 49ers head coach Mike Singletary contradict himself at every turn?

The guy talks about how tough he wants his team to be, but his training camp didn't have any actual live tackling.

He preaches playing a physical defense, then drops eight guys into coverage on 3rd-and-7, giving Dallas quarterback Tony Romo all the time he needs to find an open receiver.

He's spoken often of having that winner's attitude, yet at every opportunity he's played it safe. Whether that's choosing not to take a shot for the end zone with 11 seconds to go and the team at the Cowboys' 25-yard line or eschewing a 4th-and-inches try in the fourth quarter in favor of a field goal attempt, it simply does not scream "winner."

Singletary wants his guys to be intelligent and detail-oriented, but the coach himself routinely ignores special teams practices and said he doens't feel the need to watch what other teams are doing on film in the hopes of picking up a few pointers because, "It's all about us."

The Cowboys—who, like the 49ers, run a 3-4 defense—led the league with 59 sacks last season while the 49ers were tied for 16th with 30. The Cowboys got three more sacks against the 49ers on Saturday, while San Francisco sacked no one. 

Now obviously some of that has to do with personnel—there just aren't any DeMarcus Wares on the 49ers roster—but it stands to reason that there's a thing or two that Singletary and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky could stand to learn by taking a gander at the Cowboys film.

Singletary has made a point of explaining that his coaches haven't created a game plan for their opponents in any of their preseason games, but this seems both lazy and arrogant. If the preseason games truly do have a meaning to Singletary—as he claims they do—he should try to simulate a game situation as much as possible and give his front seven a chance to shine.

Instead, by going the vanilla route, he and his coaches took it easy.

I wonder if they'll do the easy and lazy thing when figuring out their rosters cuts too, or if they'll actually put some thought into it and see who's playing well rather than who's getting paid.

Strong safety Michael Lewis' fate hangs in the balance of that decision.

Lewis is a solid veteran, a fine character guy, and by all accounts a fine upstanding citizen. He's just no longer a very good football player, which isn't a bad thing unless it's your job to be one.

He's a decent blitzer, but the 49ers don't ask their safeties to blitz nearly as often as Lewis' old team, the Philadelphia Eagles, did and continue to. He plays the run well and he should, since for all practical purposes he's an extra linebacker on the field.

The problem is he covers like a linebacker, too.

Actually, scratch that. He covers like a below-average linebacker, and in the 3-4 scheme they run, they already have plenty of linebackers that can't cover well (Takeo Spikes, anyone?).

The 49ers already have a front seven dedicated to stopping the run and just about all of them are "plus" run defenders. What they need in their secondary are rangy guys who can cover, especially with the pash rush looking so unthreatening.

That's not Lewis.

Who it is, if you've been paying attention, is Reggie Smith.

Smith, a third-round pick out of Oklahoma last season, played primarily corner in the three games he was active for the 49ers in 2008. He's been moved to safety this year, and so far the transition has been seemless.

Not only has Smith been constantly around the ball the whole preseason, but he's been making plays left and right: picking off passes, recovering fumbles, always finding a way to have an impact.

It's been a while since the 49ers have had a safety who's been an asset and not a liability.

If the 49ers are indeed serious about contending for the NFC West this season, they'd be wise to start both Smith and Dashon Goldson, another athletic youngster, together and not worry about who's the free safety and who's the strong. The more guys in the defensive backfield that can cover, the better.

Because, believe me, they're gonna need to.

The Eagles were high on Lewis once, drafting him in the second round out of Colorado and he even made the Pro Bowl for them once after the 2004 season. But they eventually saw his limitations and, by 2006, he was riding the bench.

The 49ers swooped Lewis up as a free agent in 2007, but the time has come for them to admit that signing was a mistake and move on. He's not one of the 10 best defensive backs on the team and he doesn't deserve a roster spot, let alone a starting job.

And now that he's suffered two concussions in a span of 11 days, he's a medical risk to boot, and the time would be now to jettison him before the next concussion puts him on IR and they have to eat his entire salary.

It might sound like a cruel and heartless decision, but football is a cruel and heartless business and Lewis has had his time in the sun. For all we know, getting cut might be the best thing they could do for Lewis, as far as his long-term health is concerned, as concussions are no laughing matter. 

The Walking Wounded:

Lewis was back on the practice field today, as an observer, as several injured 49ers participated in individual drills during the afternoon practice.

Left guard David Baas, who's missed almost all of camp with a foot injury he suffered during the team's "nutcracker" drill, revealed that his ailment is actually plantar fasciitis and that he's almost completely recovered now thanks to the orthotics he's been wearing inside his cleats.

With right tackle Marvel Smith—who was Plan A at right tackle during the summer—deciding to retire because of continuing back problems, the 49ers will have to depend on Adam Snyder to be effective at that spot. Snyder was working alonside Baas Monday afternoon, wearing a large brace on his right knee.

Backup quarterback Alex Smith's sprained right thumb looked pretty healed from my perspective as his passes had good zip and not much wobble. I would expect him to be participating in full team drills tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest.

Outside linebacker Jay Moore (strained right groin) and even wide receiver Brandon Jones (fractured AC joint in shoulder) were jogging around, though the latter is nowhere close to returning.

The only one absent from the 74-man roster was outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks who had arthroscopic surgery to clean up some bone fragmants in his knee Monday morning and is expected to miss two to three weeks.  

Though Brooks and Jones were the only two 49ers head coach Singletary absolutely ruled out for Friday's preseason finale at San Diego, except many of the starters to sit the game out as the coach already pledged to take it easy on the veterans this week in practice before they start to go full-bore in preperations for Arizona.

Maybe they'll even (gasp!) game plan the Cardinals.


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