SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Coming off a down year in pass coverage in 2012, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner spent his offseason trying to improve his cover skills. As it turned out, he became one of the league’s best last season, his contract year, helping him land a four-year, $28 million deal with the Cleveland Browns in the spring.
That left San Francisco with a familiar challenge in having to replace a very good safety. The front office hit a home run in taking Eric Reid in the first round of the ’13 draft to replace Dashon Goldson.
In the early going this year, it looks like they’ve done the same with free agent strong safety Antoine Bethea to replace Whitner. In the small sample of two games, Bethea's been every bit as good, if not better than his predecessor.
"It’s been seamless," coach Jim Harbaugh said of the transition. "It’s been very similar to Donte Whitner. I’ll make a rare comparison, but both have those qualities. It’s been seamless having Antoine."
In fact, Bethea’s been the league’s top safety through the season’s first two weeks, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading. To boot, his backloaded four-year, $21 million deal is cheaper and far more manageable under the salary cap than Whitner's new contract with Cleveland.
"They both work well in the system," Reid said of Whitner and his new running mate Bethea. "They kind of have the same body type, same build. What (coordinator Vic Fangio) asks of them is pretty similar. They both fit well."
On a defense that’s struggled with penalties and the pass rush so far in 2014, the strong point has been the play of Reid and Bethea in conjunction on the back end. Neither have accrued a flag and quarterbacks have a 31.57 passer rating when targeting them in coverage.
Bethea’s "seamless" transition stems from his durability and discipline. The former sixth-round pick hasn’t missed a start since 2007 and hasn’t been flagged in his last 22 games. He’s filled lanes well against the run and prevented deep plays in the passing game, including a pair of pass breakups deep down field in the loss to Chicago.
"He reacts very quickly," Reid said. "You can see it in the way he plays, he sees something and he’s gone. He’ll shoot a gap, he’ll read a route combination. He’s very instinctive. I think that comes with his experience along with being a very smart."
Perhaps Bethea’s most notable play of the young season was his crushing hit on Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant on Reid’s first-quarter interception in Week 1. It harkened memories of Whitner’s style as an enforcer over the middle.
The difference: Bethea wasn’t flagged for sending Bryant sprawling to the turf. Whitner became a regular target for officials, amassing seven personal fouls penalties last year - five were for unnecessary roughness. Whitner was tied for the league lead among safeties for penalties, making his departure a little easier for San Francisco to swallow.
Like Reid, Bethea has focused on playing within the rules.
"It’s an emphasis on certain calls and the refs are doing their job and as players we got to play through that and make it happen," Bethea said.
Said Reid: "I think we just recognize that the league is changing on how they’re making calls on hits. Every defensive player loves a big hit, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to crush everybody that came on the field. Sometimes you got to figure out a way to do it that’s within the rules. And we’re trying to do that."
Few things can help a safety more than a strong linebacker corps. With the Colts, Bethea never played with an All-Pro or Pro Bowl linebacker. He came to a 49ers team that finished in the top three in scoring three-straight seasons, due, in part, to the presence of Patrick Willis.
Willis has been voted to seven-straight Pro Bowls to start his career, and earned first-team All-Pro recognition five times. Having that kind of player in front of him has allowed Bethea to focus more on his job.
"I think in my book (Willis is) a future Hall of Famer," Bethea said.
"I’ve always been a fan of Antoine’s," Willis said, "even watching him throughout the league when he was with Indianapolis. To be able to get him here after losing a guy like Donte who had played a lot of football for us, played some good football for us...is really good for our defense. I look forward to him to continue to turn it up each week and I enjoy watching him play and being out there with him."
Bethea won a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006 and was on the team that last to the Saints in 2009. If his strong play continues, and the defensive front returns to form when Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman come back later in the year, Bethea could get a chance at a second ring.
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