Two seasons ago, the 49ers’ pass defense was good for only one thing – padding a quarterback’s stats. The team allowed an average of 277 passing yards a game (the bulk of it coming in the first half) and finished last in the league in pass defense. Shawntae Spencer started at one cornerback position in 2005, but there was a revolving door at the other (Ahmed Plummer, Derrick Johnson, Bruce Thornton). In 2006, the 49ers brought in Walt Harris and the pass defense improved to 26th. This past season, Nate Clements was added to the mix and the 49ers’ rank improved to 22nd. Will the pass defense take another leap forward in 2008? It certainly would be helped by a better pass rush and by one of the team’s younger cornerbacks taking a more prominent role.
Tarell Brown. When the 49ers drafted Brown in the fifth round, they felt as if they got first-day value with a second-day pick. Brown, whose stock dropped following two run-ins with the law while at Texas, was model citizen in San Francisco during his first year. Brown played sparingly in 2007 (he only suited up for nine games) but the 49ers are expecting him to compete for a more prominent role this season. The biggest question about Brown is his right knee. He had to be carted off the field in the season finale in Cleveland with a completely torn MCL and partially torn ACL. The 49ers don’t believe that Brown will need surgery but he will have the knee examined again next week to determine the necessary course of action. If surgery is required, Brown’s availability for 2008 – at least early in the season – would be in doubt.
Nate Clements .What would you do with $80 million? Chances are you wouldn’t work as hard as you used to. And that’s the risk of luring a free agent with a massive contract – he’ll never live up to the numbers because, well, he doesn’t have to. If Nate Clements showed one thing this past season it’s that he’s not motivated by green. Despite signing the richest contract (for now) for a defensive back, Clements stuck to the strict workout regimen he had in Buffalo. He was the first guy in in the morning and one of the last to leave in the afternoon, a blue-collar work ethic that set a nice example for the young defensive backs on the team. What motivates Clements? The desire to be mentioned alongside Champ Bailey or Asante Samuel as one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. Clements is not the classic cornerback. He’s thickly built and relishes swooping in from the secondary to upend a ball carrier. In fact, he finished second on the team this year in solo tackles and he also forced three fumbles. To reach the top tier of cornerbacks, Clements needs more interceptions. He finished tied (with Walt Harris) for the team lead with four but allowed at least two more to slip through his grasp, including one against Cincinnati that would have gone for a touchdown. Still, the 49ers are pleased with their investment. It didn’t take Clements long to become one of the most popular personalities in the locker room and coaches would love it if he was the guy the younger defenders chose to emulate.
Walt Harris. Harris began the 2007 season like he finished 2006 – with an interception on the defense’s first play from scrimmage. In the next game, however, Harris came down to earth when veteran receiver Isaac Bruce caught eight passes for 145 yards against him in St. Louis. It was that kind of up-and-down season for Harris, who looked like his 2006 self in some games and like a just another guy in others. What’s encouraging for the 49ers is that Harris, at the ripe old age of 33, started 15 games. In a season in which every young cornerback suffered injuries, Harris and Clements mostly stayed healthy. One of the reasons Mike Nolan is so popular inside the 49ers’ locker room is because he treats his older players well. Veterans like Harris, Bryant Young and Larry Allen are exempt from certain practices throughout the year, something that keeps their batteries fresh and also builds a loyalty that trickles down to the younger players. Harris is signed through 2009 and said he is intent on coming back. It appears as if he has at least one more good season left in him.
Marcus Hudson. Hudson is the biggest cornerback on the team and is carving out a nice niche as an extra cornerback. The 49ers love to use what they call a “Big Nickel” or “Big Sub” package against teams, like Seattle, that put the ball in the air a lot. The scheme calls for an extra cornerback who can keep pace with an opponent’s receivers but who is rugged enough to help out in run defense. That was Hudson’s role for most of the season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final five weeks. Hudson also was an asset on special teams this season and finished as one of the top four players – along with Michael Robinson, Jeff Ulbrich and Keith Lewis – on the 49ers’ coverage units.
Shawntae Spencer. Somebody needs to take Shawntae Spencer to Burger King. When the 49ers stepped on the scale this past offseason, Spencer weighed in at 179 pounds, making him the lightest player on the team. Even punter Andy Lee, who has the silhouette of a scarecrow, had Spencer beat by six pounds. As you would imagine, Spencer’s slight frame has had trouble withstanding the rigors of a 16-game season. Though he played in every game as a rookie, he has had injuries in each of the last three seasons and missed the final five games of 2007 with a quadriceps strain despite having a reduced role this year. Spencer is a good cover cornerback and has gotten better in the running game. Whether he can hold onto the No. 3 cornerback position will depend on his health and that of the two youngsters, Brown and Hudson, gunning for his job.
Donald Strickland. Nolan loves Strickland because he is fearless. The one-time safety weighs only 187 pounds but throws himself at running backs and tight ends as if he’s a linebacker. The 49ers signed Strickland off the street midway through the 2006 campaign, but he has had big roles in each of the last two seasons. He started three games last year then saw his role increase this past season when Hudson went down with an injury. Strickland’s toughness was evident when, in a high-scoring game in Arizona, he entered for Spencer who had injured his quadriceps. The Cardinals immediately attacked Strickland, and on their final drive in regulation completed a 30-yard pass against him that put the Cardinals on the 1-yard line with six seconds left. A touchdown would win the game for Arizona. A field goal would send it into overtime. The Cardinals, of course, went after Strickland on the decisive play, trying for a fade to 6-3 receiver Bryant Johnson. Strickland, however, reached up and jarred the ball from Johnson’s hands, forcing Arizona into an overtime game they eventually would lose.
Next: The safeties
-- Matt Barrows