49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

August 19, 2007
Great D or bad O?

There's some talk in the morning papers about how much the 49ers' first-team defense improved over Monday night's we-forgot-how-to-tackle game against the Broncos. I'm not so sure.

Yes, they held the Raiders to zero points in the third quarter. But it wasn't a ferocious 49ers' defense that caused Andrew Walter to drop a snap on third down or caused a wide-open Travis Taylor to allow a perfectly thrown ball to doink off his chest. If Taylor catches that ball, it's a huge gain. There was no one near him.

The Raiders allowed 72 sacks (not a typo) last season. Neither Walter nor Daunte Culpepper - both of whom are as mobile as lawn jockeys - were sacked last night nor did they receive much pressure.

More troubling, in my opinion, is the run defense. Raiders running backs seemed to have an easy time getting around the edge of the 49ers' defense, even on plays in which they originally set out to go up the middle. In a 4-3 defense, setting the edge is the responsibility of a defensive end. Mike Nolan said last night that the outside linebackers, or even a safety, are supposed to do that in a 3-4.

On LaMont Jordan's first long outside run early in the second quarter, Tully Banta-Cain was turned in by the left tackle and shoved 10 yards down the field. To his credit, Banta-Cain came back with two solid stops on the same drive. But both he and Manny Lawson need to do a better job of holding their ground and driving the running back inside to the teeth of San Francisco defense.

Of course, there were several mitigating factors for the defense last night. They were playing without their starting defensive line, which hasn't played together since the spring. It's also preseason, a time when defenses use vanilla formations - especially pass-rush formations - so as not to tip off future opponents. And, of course, they are still learning the 3-4 defense.

Other observations ...

The most heartening sight for a 49ers fan has to be the play of Alex Smith. He looks poised, comfortable, in charge. He's been hitting an array of receivers, and once again showed nice veteran savvy on his biggest pass play of the night, the 19-yard touchdown to Delanie Walker. On the play, Smith first looked to his right toward receiver Darrell Jackson. This caused the safety to move in that direction, thereby vacating with other side of the end zone to allow an easy throw to Walker.

I have a strong feeling offensive coordinator Jim Hostler will be on the field this season. The game-day operations did not go smoothly with Hostler in the coaches' booth. Smith seemed frustrated on several plays and had to burn a timeout in the first quarter. Then the 49ers inexplicably allowed 17 seconds to tick off before calling a timeout at the end of the first half.

Ashley Lelie looked very good, and even caught a pass from Smith - something he hasn't done since the May minicamp. Asked if Lelie caught his eye, this how Nolan responded: "He sure did ... Is he the one who spiked the ball and got the penalty? He caught my eye on that one, too." Indeed, Lelie's delay-of-game penalty cost the 49ers five yards on their final drive of the first half. The offense was penalized three times for 25 yards on the drive.

Kwame Harris and Justin Smiley picked the wrong game to have off nights. Both were on the sideline during the first-team offense's third and fourth series while coaches took a look at back-ups Joe Staley and David Baas. Harris, who has trouble with speed rushers, was looking for Derrick Burgess to rush up the field on a third-down play in Raiders territory. Instead, Burgess took an inside move and crashed into Smith just as he was throwing. Smiley, meanwhile, was flagged for back-to-back holding penalties that moved the 49ers from the Oakland 18 to the 38.

The only injury was suffered by Dashon Goldson, who was nursing a sprained elbow. Goldson again looked very good, and seems to be just the type of physical safety the 49ers love. Linebacker Patrick Willis (game-high eight tackles) also looked good and I thought running back Thomas Clayton was hitting the holes harder than he did Monday against Denver.

An area that plagued the 49ers last season was third-down efficiency. They still have work to do. They were four of 10 (40 percent) on third downs.

*** Just spoke with Mike Nolan on a conference call. He said the injury to Goldson is more severe than previously thought and that the rookie safety would not play Saturday against Chicago. It seems Goldson got his arm caught between the legs of a Raiders running back while making a tackle. The ligaments in the elbow are certainly strained. What the 49ers' medical staff is waiting to see is whether they are torn, something that could cost Goldson the season.

Otherwise, Nolan said he thought nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga had the best game since Nolan became the 49ers' head coach in 2005. He also had high praise for right defensive end Ray McDonald. He said left defensive end Ronald Fields did not play as well as Sopoaga and McDonald.

Nolan also said there would be no changes to the starting lineup at wide receiver and offensive line, but that he liked how some of the backups played against the Raiders. He said Joe Staley in particular looked good and that he could enter the game sooner than the third series Saturday against Chicago or a week later against San Diego.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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