It appears the San Francisco 49ers defense will have its starting secondary in full on Sunday, as strong safety Antoine Bethea has cleared the NFL's concussion protocol. Bethea suffered a concussion in the 49ers Week 2 preseason loss to the Denver Broncos, and sat out the final two games of the preseason.
The 49ers secondary will feature a starting unit of Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver at cornerback, Eric Reid at free safety, and Bethea at strong safety. All indications are that Jimmie Ward will get the start at nickel back, and Perrish Cox would seemingly be the dime back now that Darryl Morris is off the roster. That leaves Chris Cook and Dontae Johnson as the backups at cornerback. More than likely Johnson will be inactive early in the season, with Cook serving as the primary backup for the outside cornerback positions.
The safety depth chart features, Jimmie Ward and Craig Dahl are listed as the primary backups at free safety and strong safety, respectively, with L.J. McCray behind Ward. Vic Fangio has already said Craig Dahl is likely to enter the game if either safety gets hurt. However, if the injury is one that will cost a player future games, Fangio indicated the team might consider Ward as the long-term replacement. There has been talk McCray could serve as one of the gunners, which could mean all five safeties would be active on game days.
The secondary has been area of concern for a lot of fans because of the changes over the last couple years. This year, we'll see new Week 1 starters in Antoine Bethea, Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock. While Bethea is getting a little long in the tooth, he is a very capable replacement for Donte Whitner. He won't bring the same big hits, but his floor strikes me as much higher. Culliver played the outside corner role in 2011 and 2012 when the 49ers were in the nickel. He was inconsistent in the latter half of 2012, and coming off an ACL injury, people remain a little bit skeptical. And of course, we know Brock moved into the lineup midway through last season.
There are questions about this group, but I am optimistic about the group. I'm generally an optimistic fan, so I suppose you can take it with a grain of salt. But this group has talent, and it's as much a matter of gelling with the pass rush. We'll get some answers quickly as they face a tough Week 1 challenge against the Dallas Cowboys high powered offense. The Cowboys are going to attack this defense through the air early and often. We'll see plenty of DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar, but I think we can all be ready for Romo to air it out. I can't say with certainty that the 49ers secondary will find success because it is such a new group, and the pass rush will be missing Aldon Smith. The talent is there to make it happen, but this group is as big a question mark as any on the team.