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2010 49ers defense: How good can it be?

As we get closer and closer to the regular season, every media type puts together their own preview of the upcoming season. Over at ESPN Radio, on the Mike and Mike in the Morning show, Greenberg and Golic have been putting together previews of each team with the 5 biggest questions facing the team. Thanks to StevenC for initially linking to this audio in a FanShot.

In the audio, both Mikes seem fairly high on the 49ers with Greenberg predicting 12-4 and Golic predicting 11-5 (although I think Greenberg's big prediction brought Golic up to 11-5). Of course, Mike Golic apparently still thinks Shaun Hill is on the team, so take it with a bit of a grain of salt.

One of the five questions they discussed was "Can Mike Singletary's defense emerge as a consistent unit?" The main point they brought up in their discussion was the inconsistency over the course of the season. Greenberg pointed to an interesting statistic: In their 8 wins, the 49ers defense gave up 56 points, while in their 8 losses, they gave up 225 points. That's an average of 7 points allowed in wins and 28 points in losses. Even if the offense had been able to apply a consistent attack, it would have been tough to overcome 28 points.

While we do have to factor in a tired defense at times, and offensive turnovers returned for TDs, among other things, the consistency was still a very real issue. The strongest comment in the audio came from Mike Golic when he said that when the defense was playing well, they looked like they could be the #1 defense in the entire league. The question is how true that comment might be heading into 2010.

It's particularly intriguing because the team didn't make a ton of moves on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest changes from last year to this year are the addition of NaVorro Bowman and Taylor Mays, the likely addition of Diyral Briggs to the 53-man roster on a regular basis, the potential insertion of Reggie Smith into the Mark Roman role, and maybe the increased playing time Ricky Jean Francois might see even after Aubrayo Franklin signs his tender. Some of these moves might end up being bigger than others, but in the grand scheme of things, we're not talking about huge changes to the starting defense.

Given this relative stability on defense, where do people see the defense performing in 2010? I think the ceiling is as high as most defenses in the league, but that doesn't mean we'll see that kind of production consistently. Of course, depending on the defensive metrics we look at, the 49ers were already an elite defense. Based on simple total yards allowed, the 49ers ranked 15th overall, 21st against the pass, and 6th against the rush. Under Football Outsiders defense efficiency ratings, the 49ers ranked 3rd overall, 7th against the pass, and 4th against the rush.

For those who haven't seen any of our Football Outsiders discussion, one of the drawbacks to the traditional total yards allowed measurement is that it treats all yards gained equally, even though some yards gained (such as 2 yards gained on 3rd and 1) are more important than other yards gained (a gain of 10 on a 3rd and 14).

For the purposes of this post, I will say that the 49ers had a very solid defense that could take it to a new level in 2010. There are several questions to consider heading into 2010. I think the team will be able to answer them, but there are areas that could emerge as trouble spots. Here are some of those trouble areas and why I think the team will find the necessary solutions. I wanted to take a look at nose tackle, the secondary and the issue of sacks.

1. Nose tackle

I bring this up not because of Franklin's holdout, or at least not entirely. I suppose there are issues that arise when you miss practice time and preseason game time with your teammates. However, beyond that is the question of whether Franklin will be able to repeat a 2009 season that most 49ers defensive players thought was worthy of the Pro Bowl. I think with the potential to earn himself a monster contract in the offseason, I think Franklin can sniff out a very good year. Maybe it's not for the best reasons (as opposed to wanting to win or whatever), but if it gets the team great play at nose tackle, who cares what his reasons are.

Additionally, the chance to rotate Ricky Jean Francois could add essential depth to keep Franklin fresh. Franklin is not the type of NT that will play the entire game and be absolutely dominant all the way through. He'll have plenty of big moments, but depth at the position will be important, and RJF looks to be providing that this year if reports of his from camp of his strong performances continues.

2. Secondary

The secondary has been a question mark for the 49ers since before the Nolan era began. The team has had talent in the defensive secondary but not enough across the board. However, with the influx of talent and the development of some folks, I'm actually feeling fairly decent with the secondary.

The starting secondary to begin the season will likely be Shawntae Spencer, Nate Clements, Dashon Goldson, and Michael Lewis, with Tarell Brown operating as the first cornerback off the bench, and Reggie Smith as the first safety off the bench. Changes could happen, but I'm operating under this assumption for now.

If the secondary remains healthy, while I don't think this will be a big-time ball-hawking unit, I do think they'll be able to provide a nice level of consistency. Goldson is the primary ballhawk. Michael Lewis is there for run support. Clements can still provide coverage while being an excellent run defender and general open field tackler, all while looking to prove he's not over the hill. And Shawntae Spencer quietly shocked some folks by emerging as the #1 cornerback for this team.

I actually am perfectly content with those four starters and think the defense could be solid with them as is. However, if the team can see continued development from Tarell Brown and Reggie Smith, I think they could step up to an even greater level. There are so many great wide receivers in the NFL that you can't have too many defensive backs. The more quality depth the better.

And I didn't even mention Taylor Mays. The second round pick is a starting safety of the future but will certainly see a fair amount of playing time in his rookie season. It remains to be seen where he'll end up on the depth chart by season's end, but he only adds more big-hitting depth.

3. The Sack Numbers

Even before the injury to Ahmad Brooks one question mark to me was how many sacks would we see in 2010. The 49ers went from 30 sacks (tied for 16th) in 2008 to 44 sacks (tied for 3rd) in 2009. Can the team repeat this and bring some kind of consistent heat? Even with the high sack total it really felt like there were too many times where the 49ers pass rush disappeared. The Packers game would be a perfect example of this.

When you look at the points allowed in wins and loss mentioned above, a quick look at the sack totals for wins and losses will provide at least a little bit of context to the points allowed. In the 49ers eight losses they recorded 15 sacks (5 of them in the 20-17 loss at Seattle). In the 49ers eight wins they recorded 29 sacks. Maybe that doesn't tell the whole picture, but it definitely gives us a better idea.

If the 49ers are going to gain a level of consistency that will make them one of the best defenses in the league (if not the best), they'll need the consistent pass rush from week to week. The loss of Ahmad Brooks hurts the defense, but he should be back early enough in the year. Furthermore, we'll get a bit more Diyral Briggs time. If he can live up to some of the fan hype, what's to stop the team from having a 4-headed monster at outside linebacker in 2010?