Looking at the San Francisco 49ers defense, it’s hard to find much weakness. They arguably have the best front-seven in the league, and there is a nice blend of youth and veterans at the cornerback position. But if the 49ers want to remain an elite defense, their safeties will have a large say in which direction this unit will go.
Strong safety Donte Whitner played well in his first season as a 49er. He was consistently laying big hits all over the field and effective in stuffing the run, but in 2012 his play spiraled downward. Whitner’s run defense took a step back and his pass defense was not much better.
According to the statistics formulated by Pro Football Focus, Whitner allowed quarterbacks to post a 128.5 passer rating. In addition, he surrendered eight touchdowns during the regular season–most among all safeties. Ironically, he was voted to the Pro Bowl roster.
But his poor play might not have been entirely his fault, as the overall pass rush regressed last year compared to its 2011 form. If the 49ers can get more production out of that area, Whitner’s performance should pick right back up.
General manager Trent Baalke sees potential in free safety Eric Reid. With the team taking him 18th overall in this year’s draft, there’s little doubt that he won’t start come Week 1. His main competition in camp is seventh-year pro Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman, who has only one career start through five seasons.
Reid possesses the athleticism to bring down running backs, cover tight ends and win the jump ball battles. However, his gifted playmaking ability could get him in trouble at times, as he has a tendency to over pursue. Taking that wrong route on a pass play will likely cost his team six points on the NFL stage. Reid can also be a bit reckless by going for the knockout blow instead of making the sure tackle.
However, those parts of his game could easily be coached. Getting him to play with greater discipline will ultimately make him a special safety. He already has the physical tools and desire in place to make an impact.
While both Whitner and Reid make for a fearsome tandem in the secondary, their coverage skills will constantly be tested. If they are unable to stick to opposing wideouts, the 49ers are staring at trouble.
As we saw throughout the playoffs, giving up big pass plays can provide a huge momentum boost to the opponent. Even though the 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl last year, they’re playing with fire if they continue to surrender chunks of yardage through the air.
San Francisco is ready for a return trip to the big game, and this time, their big hitters need to come through.