SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If it is true that a team takes on the personality of its coaches, NFC West opponents should be wary of the 49ers' defense this season.
Led by coach Mike Singletary and unheralded defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the team is quietly assembling a gritty unit poised to wreak havoc on foes in 2009.
That disruption will be necessary as the 49ers play in a division that features two offenses (Arizona and Seattle) capable of turning any contest into a high-scoring affair. With an offense that lacks the quick-strike ability to keep up in a track meet, San Francisco is intent on building a defense that excels in keeping the score down, regardless of the offense's potency.
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Last season, teams caught a glimpse of the unit's potential when the defense surged after Singletary replaced Mike Nolan as the 49ers' coach seven games into the season. The unit finished 13th in total defense and held opponents to only 17.4 points per game during the last seven games of the season -- the seventh-lowest total in the league during that span.
While Singletary's promotion played a part in the defense's stellar showing to close the season, it was Manusky's decision to simplify the scheme that allowed the unit to thrive.
Manusky, who played for 12 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker/special teams stalwart before entering the coaching ranks, scrapped the team's hybrid defense in favor of a conventional base 3-4. Under Nolan, the team favored multiple fronts with various personnel groupings designed to counter the intricate tactics preferred by offensive coordinators. The complex approach, however, often left the team's young defenders dazed and unable to play at a fast tempo. By scaling back game plans and removing some of the advanced schemes, Manusky not only eliminated some of the mental mistakes that plagued the unit, but he allowed his defense to play faster, which resulted in more aggressive play.
Furthermore, Manusky made stopping the run the defense's top priority. By shutting down opposing ground games, the 49ers hope to force offenses into long-yardage situations, which will create more high-pressure opportunities for their defense. The unit only totaled 30 sacks a season ago, so the coaching staff is hoping that a more aggressive approach will lead to an increase in sacks and turnovers.
But playing good defense goes beyond schemes, it is about players and the 49ers have a roster full of star-quality defenders.
Patrick Willis, the 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year, has become a household name in only two seasons with the club. The two-time Pro Bowl linebacker has emerged as one of the best at the position and is the disruptive playmaker in the center of the team's defense. Though his production dipped slightly in 2008, there is no doubt that the defensive success begins and ends with Willis in the middle.
While Willis is clearly the headliner on defense, he is surrounded by a hard-working supporting cast in San Francisco that features a pair of key veterans along the front seven. Defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Takeo Spikes were signed as free agents prior to last season and each played pivotal roles in the defense's strong finish.
Smith, a nine-year pro with 50.5 career sacks, tallied seven sacks and an interception last season. Although he is not regarded as an elite pass rusher, Smith plays with a relentless energy that wears out opponents, and his sacks were often the result of the veteran winning on a second or third effort. In addition, Smith gave the 49ers a surprisingly stout run defender on the edge, and teamed with Aubrayo Franklin and Isaac Sopoaga for a formidable frontline.
In Spikes, the 49ers acquired a hard-nosed veteran willing to do all of the dirty work between the tackles. The former Pro Bowler routinely took on lead blockers, allowing Willis to act as the "run-and-chase" player in the defense. While some wrote off the 11-year veteran when he departed Philadelphia, Spikes proved the naysayers wrong by finishing tied for second on the 49ers in tackles. In addition, he tied for the team lead with three interceptions, and added two fumble recoveries.
While most expected San Francisco's veterans to make key contributions, the defense got an unexpected boost from Parys Haralson. The fourth-year pro led the team with eight sacks and emerged as the team's top pass rushing threat in only his second season as a full-time starter. With the 49ers shifting to a more conventional 3-4 at mid-season, Haralson flourished with more opportunities to get after the quarterback as an edge rusher.
As well as the 49ers' front seven played at times last season, the unit could be even better in 2009 if a pair of former first-round picks, Manny Lawson and Kentwan Balmer, continue to build on their stellar offseason performances.
Lawson, the second of the team's two first-round picks in 2006, was expected to thrive as a "do-it-all" playmaker in the team's 3-4. However, injuries and an overabundance of responsibilities prevented him from making a significant impact early in his career. He recorded only 5.5 sacks in his first 24 starts, and failed to deliver game-changing plays. However, the light finally appeared to come on during a four-game stretch that saw Lawson produce four sacks. With some of Lawson's production attributed to the team incorporating him more into the pressure package as an outside rusher, those numbers could skyrocket in 2009.
Balmer, a first-round pick in 2008, failed to crack the starting lineup as a rookie, and finished the season with only seven tackles. Team officials, however, have been effusive in their praise of the second-year pro's work throughout the offseason. He has been a fixture at the team's facility this offseason and shown dramatic improvement during on-field sessions. As a potential swing player (nose tackle or defensive end), Balmer has the ability to be an impact player this season.
With a rock-solid front seven in place, the 49ers biggest question mark heading into the fall appears to be their pass defense. The team ranked 20th in passing yards allowed (219.2) last season and surrendered 12 completions over 40 yards, which ranked tied for the second-highest total in the league. To further complicate matters, the team lost former Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris to a season-ending knee injury during offseason workouts. With nickel back Shawntae Spencer still recovering from his knee injury, the team has a competition going at right corner to see who will start opposite Nate Clements.
Tarell Brown, a fifth-round pick in the 2007 draft, will get first crack at the job, but he has only played sparingly in the team's sub-package. Though he had two interceptions last season, the jump from situational player to starter is a big one, and he has to show he is ready for the challenge.
If Brown falters, the 49ers appear to have a solid backup plan in Dre' Bly. The two-time Pro Bowler recently signed and has made a strong impression since joining the team. As a natural ballhawk with a gambler's mentality, Bly excels at making plays on the ball. His dazzling skills were on display during minicamp as he repeatedly got his hands on balls thrown in his direction. With 40 career interceptions over 10 seasons, Bly brings an added dimension to a defense that only recorded 12 picks last season and could be the wildcard that pushes the defense to the next level.
In the 49ers' heyday, the team rode a star-studded offense to reign supreme over the NFC West, but in the Singletary era, it is an emerging defense that is set to cast a looming shadow over the division.