49ers vs. Saints: What to Look For (Defensive Edition)

LONDON ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: Justin Smith #94 of San Francisco 49ers celebrates sacking Kyle Orton the Denver Broncos Quarterback during the NFL International Series match between Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers at Wembley Stadium on October 31 2010 in London England. This is the fourth occasion where a regular season NFL match has been played in London. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)


San Francisco 49ers roster

Part II:

Welcome back to the conclusion of "What to Look For" in the 2011 preseason, starting with the San Francisco 49ers against the New Orleans Saints. The back half of this two part column is dedicated to the 49ers defensemen. Although it remains a 3-4 system in the Bay Area, there is almost an entirely new defensive staff in place, led by co-ordinator Vic Fangio. When installing a new system, typically there are growing pains which we have a chance to see beginning Friday evening in the first preseason game.

There are a lot of positions open right now on defense, so everyone on that side of the ball will be vying to make plays this preseason. This will add some excitement to a commonly dull schedule of games because there will be some effort by the players -- splash plays really mean something. One of the few sure-fire starters, defenive end Justin Smith said, "I think we just want to go down there and see what we have, how we man up, how we pass rush one on one...just got to see what type of players we have." 

Linebackers

Bowman: Navorro Bowman should very much be under everyone's microscope right about now. The San Francisco 49ers organization felt confident enough in this young man to replace a fan favorite and locker room leader in Takeo Spikes, who left to rejoin former co-ordinator Greg Manusky in San Diego. I believe Bowman has it in him; as a collegiate, he fought through adversity and overcame a lot of obstacles, constantly performing at a high level during his time at Penn State, otherwise known as "Linebacker U". Look for how he plays with Willis and even more so, how he plays without Willis. Can he blitz? Does he make the pre-snap reads and communicate them when Willis is off the field? Watch for Bowman's play recognition, aggressiveness against the run and if he can play coverage. Bowman should be able to play well against the run right away, but make sure he doesn't get burned by the tight end Friday. Kansas City Cheifs tight end Tony Moeaki got famous off a one-handed touchdown grab against Bowman last year when they were both rookies. I anticipate a formidable showing by the second year man this preseason, which hopefully translates to the regular season and beyond.    

The outside linebacker rotation will demand close attention; there should be a lot of different numbers rotating in and out of those two spots. Fans will want to watch Aldon Smith. So look to see if Smith gets a sack, tackle for a loss or even if he is generally disruptive. His long arms should be busy batting balls down and keeping blockers away from him. When a big play happens, make note of the lineup that was on the field at the time -- which two outside linebackers were in? See if you notice a trend by game 4 of the preseason because the coaches will certainly be looking for one.

Oh, and don't worry about Patrick Willis...he'll be just fine.

Defensive Line

McDonald: Ray McDonald is part of Harbaugh's grand scheme for the system at the defensive end position where he has previously rotated with Isaac Sopoaga. We want to see if McDonald is capable of absorbing two offensive linemen at a time to allow the linebackers to roam free. When McDonald isn't engaged with two offensemen, is he creating pressure by taking advantage of the one on one? He got what he wanted this offseason -- let's see if he can deliver as promised.

Jean-Francois: Ricky Jean-Francois has been a presence during practice and the limited game day reps he has seen. With Aubrayo Franklin's departure and Sopoaga's injured hamstring, Jean-Francois needs to be ready to start at the nose tackle position if necessary. With that being the case, he has been taking all of the first team snaps at training camp, with Notre Dame rookie, Ian Williams backing him up. Jean-Francois needs to be a force in the middle for this scheme to work effectively. Does he play big enough to be a stop gap in a 3-4 defense? Not only will he need to take on multiple offensive linemen per down, but he will need to be able to tackle the runningback while engaged. The best defensive tackles will throw their arm out to make the stop regardless of whether they have a man on them. So, look to see if he has a nose for the football and plays every down till the whistle blows.  

Williams: Ian Williams is a rookie with something to prove and it just so happens he has the opportunity in red and gold. The Irish product should see some significant time against the Saints so look for him to relish the opportunity. Williams may be under the radar but look for him to contribute in one way or another, whether it is making a stop or taking on a blocker to free up a teammate to make the tackle.    

Cornerbacks

Rogers: Newcomer Carlos Rogers is looking for a fresh start after being selected 9th overall out of Auburn by the Washington Redskins in 2005. Rogers was a solid cover corner opposite Deangelo Hall in the gritty NFC East but developed the habit of dropping catchable interceptions. For now, we should put that issue to bed as it benefits no one but the other 31 teams. Whether he intercepts a pass or drops a would-be interception in the preseason, matters very little. What we should be looking for in Rogers this preseason is his conditioning and ability to stick with the receiver he's facing. Is Rogers capable of handling the number 1 receivers in the league? Also, as he is still learning the playbook, a blown coverage may happen but they are all a part of the necessary growing pains. Rogers can play, and with a fresh start in a revamped franchise, he could possibly turn into the complete cornerback the league expected back in 2005.    

Spencer and Culliver: Coach Fangio said recently that Shawntae Spencer was performing well in camp, and that he was in the running to earn the starting corner position opposite Rogers. This years draft for the 49ers produced South Carolina's Chris Culliver in the third round, early by most projections. Likely, Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke didn't want to risk this guy getting taken by another team. At 6'0, Culliver's a big physical guy who has experience at both safety and corner. With the proper coaching and a little bit of elbow grease, Culliver could develop into an Antonio Cromartie-like bump n' run corner and challenge Spencer for the 2nd corner slot. At the moment, it's Spencer's job to lose but watch the overall performance by both corners this preseason. Tarrel Brown and Tramaine Brock could also make some preseason noise in the nickel; look for how they shadow the NFL's speedy slot receievers.  

Safeties

The safety position in San Francisco was like a slowly dying fire before Captain Comeback came to town. That is, until Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke dumped gasoline on the embers by bringing in former Cincinatti Bengal and Minnesota Viking Madieu Williams, Buffalo Bills' Donte Whitner, re-signing Dashon Goldson and drafting Texas Christian's Colin Jones in a later round. Before he was injured, Reggie Smith was competing hard for a starting spot in the last line of defense. At a press conference, Fangio even brought up the possibility of packages featuring three safeties at a time.

Whitner: It's too early to tell who any of the starting safeties will be but there is a good chance Donte Whitner cracks the starting lineup, literally. He's been rough and tumble at camp and people have been impressed thus far. Last year in Buffalo, Whitner posted an amazing 140 tackles, good enough for fifth in the entire league. Whitner was critical of himself, saying he remembers about 4 or 5 botched interceptions but hopes to improve on that citing that the great safeties in the league are ball hawks (See: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens). Whitner doesn't have a whole lot to prove in preseason but look to see if he comes up with a pick. Also, keep an eye on where Whitner is playing, in terms of the free safety position or the strong safety position. Fangio said they were interchangeable, like the outside linebackers, and Whitner's resume sounds much more suited to someone who plays strong safety.

Goldson and Williams: Dashon Goldson is back after coming to terms with the Niners front office. Goldson just about threw in the towel with the news of Madieu Williams and Donte Whitner being signed. But now he is back and once again fighting for time, which history would indicate is great news. Dashon Goldson had his best season in 2009 when he still had something to prove, but without someone in his rearview, Goldson recorded only one interception last season on a giveaway by Seattle. Goldson and Williams could be battling for that free safety position if Whitner takes on the strong safety position. I think the Faithful wouldn't mind the possible pairing of Goldson and Whitner, but would be more satisfied with the position being given to the player who earns it. Look for the rotation in the secondary and who gets paired with who, the combinations could vary as the coaches continue to evaluate.

 Wild Cards: The X factors in the secondary are Colin Jones, C.J. Spillman and Taylor Mays. All of these guys are competing for a spot on the team and versatility is a valuable asset to them moving forward. Spillman was acquired from San Diego during last season and was an immediate force on special teams coverage. Harbaugh's handpicked safety from TCU, Jones, could prove to be a special teams ace as well with his blazing speed. Look for the two of them sprinting downfield on punts and kickoffs; they will likely be the ones punishing the ball carrier. Special teams hasn't been this exciting since Vince Papale played for the Philadelphia Eagles. I think the two could make for a threatening tandem of gunners in their first season together.

Mays isn't down for the count after the news went public that the 49ers were shopping him via the world wide web. He has a chip on his shoulder now and a better environment to learn from this year compared to the inexperience San Francisco was forced to deal with last season. There is a great blend of players getting after it in camp at the safety position so the preseason games should make for some great competition. Look to see if Mays is really taking advantage of his time on the field. We are all aware that he is a great physical specimen but has he mentally grown? To answer this question, examine Mays' coverage skills rather than his tackling ability. Does he assert himself and know the playbook or does he look like a lost puppy in a park full of big dogs?  

There is a lot to look for on defense because all the positions require a relative amount of attention. Try to pick a few battles to watch at a time, but keep an eye out for the splash plays as well. Make a mental note of the lineup when plays like interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks or deflections occur. What lineman was bringing the pressure and which defensive back swatted the pass down? These things matter even if the final score doesn't. So with that in mind, enjoy the preseason games starting with San Francisco and New Orleans tonight at 5:00 pm PDT/ 8:00 ET. If you missed Part I of this article, check out the archive at www.ninersnation.com.

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