The San Francisco 49ers (3-1) are hot right now off back to back road wins, returning home to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1). One of the more impressive things about the Niners' current standing is that they have achieved it through injuries. The injuries have been frequent enough to earn the team a catch phrase; "The Next Man Up."
This weekend, cornerback Chris Culliver is going to be that next man up. This week, the 49ers released information disclosing injuries to cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Shawntae Spencer. For those of you who need a refresher as to who Culliver is, he is the 49ers 2011 third round draft choice out of the University of South Carolina.
The rookie defensive back is looking at more time against the Tampa Bay receivers after getting some reps against the Eagles in week four. On more than one occasion, Culliver was assigned to cover explosive wide out Jeremy Maclin, and fared well against him. Like Carlos Rogers, he played off Maclin, as to take away the big play.
Early on, Culliver's body language in coverage showed he was playing careful but as the game went on, he looked more eager for physical contact. At 6'0" 200-pounds, head coach Jim Harbaugh and the defensive staff seemed to like matching Culliver up against a big physical receiver like Maclin instead of a burner like DeSean Jackson.
Entering week five, Culliver should be primed for a match-up against Buccaneers wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Benn, another young but physically astute prospect, could have his work cut out for him against a guy eager to prove himself.
In limited reps this season, Culliver has shown himself to be a decent tackler but the verdict is still out on his coverage abilities. The fact that he is yet to be responsible for any big plays by the opposition this year is great and about all we know at this point. With a chance for some significant playing time this weekend, we should learn a whole lot more about Culliver as a player.
So far, the 49ers 2011 draft class has already shown production out of linebacker Aldon Smith and running back Kendall Hunter, as well as fullback Bruce Miller. Culliver has shown some good things that might indicate he could be the fourth rookie contributor to the Niners. Against the Eagles, he showed the athletic ability and concentration to stay with the receivers when Michael Vick extended the play with his feet.
Culliver covered well enough to allow his guys up front to disrupt the play, and it began with hustle and winning the individual match-ups. At the moment, Culliver is still a work-in-progress but he makes up for it with hustle until he can grip the technical side and NCAA-NFL speed adjustment. We'll look for Culliver to step up big time in a pivotal match between two 3-1 teams this Sunday in week five.
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