Season review, part 7: defensive backs

The 49ers had a tough time defending the pass, but there were several reasons. And who can forget Nate Clements' costly interception and fumble against the Falcons in October?

Oh, how the San Francisco 49ers' season might have turned out had Nate Clements not fumbled the ball.

It was a strip, actually. And although it happened way back in October, in the fourth game of the season, it was a turning point – for the Niners, for coach Mike Singletary, for the team's secondary.

On the verge of becoming a hero after intercepting a Matt Ryan pass late in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons, Clements ran down the sideline rather than go down and protect a 14-13 lead. He was stripped of the ball by Falcons wide receiver Rodd White, Atlanta recovered, and Matt Bryant kicked a game-winning field goal on the last play of the game.

Had the 49ers won the game, they would have made the playoffs. Singletary might still be their coach. Jim Harbaugh would be coaching some other team or might still be at Stanford. Everything would be different.

In part seven of our season review, let's look at the secondary:


This is clearly an area in need of improvement. The Niners gave up an average of 231 passing yards per game, 24th in the league, and intercepted 15 passes to rank 17th. Opposing quarterbacks had a 90.0 passer rating against them.

Part of the problem, of course, was the lack of a consistent pass rush. But the secondary often played soft, occasionally bit on receivers' moves and gave up too many big plays.

Plenty of fingers pointed at Clements, but he wasn't the only problem. Clements is a physical cornerback who loves to tackle and finished with three interceptions, three forced fumbles, 15 passes broken up and 88 tackles. In fact, he had a better season than fellow cornerback Shawntae Spencer, who tackled poorly and gave up too many deep balls despite intercepting three passes.

Veteran safety Michael Lewis asked for and was granted his release early in the season after being told that rookie Taylor Mays would be eased into the rotation. But Mays wasn't ready for the job and got five starts before being replaced by Reggie Smith. Mays is a good hitter, but the knock against him in college was his inability to be a playmaker, and the 49ers realized it this season. He'll need to take a big step forward next season if he hopes to become a starting safety in the league.

The other safety, Dashon Goldson, didn't make many big plays but was consistent and steady. He had just one interception (after totaling four in 2009) and had no forced fumbles (after three in '09). Smith was steady after replacing Mays.

Look for the 49ers to draft a cornerback who will push Clements, assuming he's willing to restructure his contract. He's due to make more than $15 million next season, so he will either accept a cut or look elsewhere for work.

Grade: C-minus.

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