Patrick Willis (Photo by: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Coming off a season where they were one play away from being champions you would think the Niners were a team that was set for many years on both sides of the football. However, there are some questions about the defense that will be answered when the real games start. The concerns are mostly in the secondary, as the front seven is among the best in football if everybody is healthy.
It is very important to have at least 2 shutdown corners because with the NFL becoming so pass oriented, you need to be able to shut down the pass game first and foremost. Granted, if you have a quality pass rush, which the Niners do, then it makes your secondary look better. But, as we witnessed toward the end of the Niners season, once Justin Smith got injured the Niners defense as a whole struggled, especially Aldon Smith. The secondary was torn apart by Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and, of course, Joe Flacco in the Superbowl. That’s because having a cornerback three-some of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver isn’t good enough if the team doesn’t have an excellent pass rush game after game. Rogers is still solid, but not the player that he was in his first year with the Niners. Brown is an adequate corner, but being only 5’10 and 193lbs he’s much more suited as a nickel or dime corner and not as a starter on the outside. Culliver is still raw and showed signs last year of being pretty good, but getting torched in the Superbowl made people forget about that.
Also the losses of Dashon Goldson, Issac Sopoaga, and Ricky Jean-Francois made the 49ers make some offseason moves that don’t really improve the team all that much. Defensive tackle Glen Dorsey was released by the Kansas City Chiefs because he didn’t live up to the hype that surrounded him and should really be a backup, not a starter. The Niners used their first round draft pick on Eric Reid, the young safety out of LSU who has some of the same skills that Goldson did, but also some of the same weaknesses. He’s not great in coverage, he can overplay the run at times and goes for the big hit far to often. The Niners also brought in Craig Dahl from the St. Louis Rams, who’s been a solid pro but nothing spectacular. Throw in the addition of Nnamdi Asomugha, the Niners have more depth than last year, but they ultimately lost talent in the secondary, which ranked fourth in the NFL last year.
The linebacking core of Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks is the best in the NFL and by far the strength of the defense. However, Smith is coming off of surgery to repair a torn labrum, so it’s questionable if he will be his normal disruptive self starting the season. Also, Brooks faces trouble relating to an incident outside his house where he struck teammate Lamar Divens in the head three times with a beer bottle during an argument over car keys, according to the Mercury News a couple of weeks ago. It looks like Brooks will not be disciplined for this incidence, but if he was disciplined and had to miss time, then the Niners would have to rely on rookie fourth round pick Corey Lemonier.
Finally, the Niners remain solid up front with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald as the two defensive-ends in the 3-4 front the Niners play. Smith has been the Niners MVP the last two seasons, as he makes everybody around him better. When he was injured late in the season, the defense suffered significantly. However, coming off triceps surgery much like his partner-in-crime Aldon Smith, there are questions regarding his effectiveness to start the season. He is also 34 years old and not getting any younger. The Niners did a nice job of adding depth behind Smith and Mcdonald. Guys like Glen Dorsey and Ian Williams will provide the Niners with more depth than they had last year, which will keep the Smith Brothers as well as McDonald healthier for the playoff run late in the year.
The Niners are still a great team, probably the top team in the NFC going into the season, according to Pro Football Talk and NFL.com. But, even great teams have some weaknesses, and it is yet to be determined if the Niners pass rush is as effective as it’s been the past two years. If not, the talented quarterbacks who the Niners will play; like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Roger Griffin III, will go crazy on the Niners secondary.