Maiocco: Uncertainty abounds on 49ers' defense

Maiocco: Uncertainty abounds on 49ers' defense
July 13, 2011, 4:14 pm
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They have no playbook, thus they have not been getting together in large numbers during the NFL lockout.The 49ers' defense includes four starters -- and one potential starter -- up for free agency. The defense has been the strength of a team that has not reached the playoffs since 2002, yet there is a lot of uncertainty on that side of the ball for the 49ers.
During the lockout, most of the attention has been on the 49ers' offense. Twenty-five offensive players got together at San Jose State over a two-week period of work, known as "Camp Alex." Unsigned quarterback Alex Smith received a copy of the playbook from coach Jim Harbaugh and has served as an adjunct to the coaching staff during the lockout.
Meanwhile, defensive players have been largely working out on their own, waiting for the lockout to end and the work to begin.
While the 49ers' offense appears largely set, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the defense for a change.The 49ers are prepared to lose nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and outside linebacker Manny Lawson in free agency. If they can re-sign defensive end Ray McDonald, the 49ers appear set with Isaac Sopoaga moving back to nose tackle, and McDonald taking over as a starter at left defensive end. The 49ers plan for rookie Aldon Smith to slide into the lineup at weak outside linebacker, where his primary duty will be to get after the quarterback.The 49ers expressed a desire to re-sign veteran Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, but the club also selected NaVorro Bowman a year ago in the third round to eventually team with Patrick Willis on the inside.The most interesting decisions will occur in the 49ers' secondary. The team selected cornerback Chris Culliver in the third round. Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer are under contract, but the 49ers were not satisfied with Clements' coverage or Spencer's tackling last season.
If the 49ers make a big splash in free agency, it figures to be with an eye on cornerbacks with such players as Nnamdi Asomugha, Johnathan Joseph, Ike Taylor, Richard Marshall and Antonio Cromartie set to hit the market.Safety is another interesting spot for the 49ers. Their best defensive back, Dashon Goldson, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. He'll get a nice contract. But will the 49ers go high enough to retain him?In Trent Baalke's first draft, the 49ers invested a second-round pick on Taylor Mays. Certainly, Baalke envisions Mays as a starter sooner than later. The 49ers' coaching staff appears to be keeping an open mind about all the players."This is a young player, going into Year 2," 49ers defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said this offseason of Mays. "That's when a lot of guys spike, especially when you're a high-profile guy like he was. If you think about that first year, it's a whirlwind. He got some valuable playing time. I see a lot of traits. He should spike in this system."Mays started six games at safety last season, but the previous coaching staff determined he was not yet ready to handle the coverage aspects of the job. Reggie Smith started the final seven games after replacing Mays in the lineup, and he was generally solid.It's also possible the 49ers could shift Culliver to safety if Goldson does not return.The defensive coaching staff is going to be working against the clock to figure all this out -- and determine the best way to improve the 49ers' No. 24 ranking against the pass from a year ago.Do not expect new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to try to make the 49ers' defense something it is not. Would he like to employ a pressure defense like what his longtime associate Dom Capers has done in Green Bay?"We'd like to," Fangio said this offseason. "He (Capers) fell into two really good cover corners (Tramon Williams and Sam Shields) besides (Charles) Woodson. So that allows you to be comfortable to be more of a pressure team and not have to be kind of tricking them all of the time. You do what your players allow you to do."Donatell said Fangio will adapt to the players on the 49ers' defense and he will play to their strengths."He's going to do what fits," Donatell said. "He's going to do the amount (of blitzing) he has to do for us to be successful. And I don't know what that is right now. And he doesn't, either. We haven't put our hands on our players."The biggest thing, he is great at playing the hand he has," Donatell said of Fangio. "And there's great evidence of what he was able to do at Stanford in one year. He is a sharp guy at adjusting to what he has. You saw him go right to college football, figure it out and have a great year."