3 Burning Questions: Defensive line

The 49ers simply didn't have enough quality defensive linemen last year to hold up in the weekly power wars of the NFL trenches. So they eliminated one from the equation. And how well the Niners' defense operates this year with a front wall of just three players in the team's new 3-4 scheme will be one of the major keys in the outcome of San Francisco's 2005 season.

Once coach Mike Nolan swept in earlier this year with a new philosophy and new defensive staff, the Niners swept out their standard 4-3 set, a system San Francisco had used almost exclusively as its base defense since 1994.

It's a 3-4 scheme now, and while that might seem like a subtle change for some observers, it represents a significant shift for the big fellows up front who must play it. It also has led to remodeled personnel, since size is a requirement at all three starting positions.

Q: If that's the case, are the 49ers big enough now to hang with the big boys up front?

A:
They're getting there. Four-time All-Pro tackle Bryant Young was shifted to left end, where his size, skill and power should make it a relatively easy transition. To fill a huge void on the other side, Marques Douglas was signed away from Baltimore, where he had a career season last year playing under Nolan, then the Ravens' defensive coordinator. Both players looked relatively adept in those positions this summer, and San Francisco recently signed veteran Travis Hall to rotate as the third end. The Niners filled from within at noseguard, putting undersized but mobile tackle Anthony Adams there to share duties with a 321-pound boulder named Isaac Sopoaga. Throw in 315-pound noseguard Ronnie Fields, the team's fifth-round draft pick, and there you go – a San Francisco defensive line rebuilt to fit the new scheme.

Q: And how, exactly, can that be expected to work?

A:
That's one of the key issues of this season for the 49ers, and it could be the determining factor whether the 3-4 becomes an early success or a system that will need some time to reach its fruition. Gone are 2004 starting ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter, who were left without a position along the line due to their lack of bulk. Engelberger was traded to the Denver Broncos, and Carter has been moved to outside linebacker, where he still can make use of his formidable pass-rushing skills. Those two players were San Francisco's best pass rushers in the 4-3, but the new scheme doesn't make such demands of its line occupants. The noseguards are expected to occupy blockers and hold ground in the middle, and the ends need to hold the edge and get upfield push rather than put steady heat on the quarterback. While it's obviously taking all players involved some time to get comfortable in the system, the defined roles and team mentality it presents are things that have been embraced this summer.

Q: Who's the guy to watch here?

A:
Douglas knows what he needs to do, so don't worry about him. Young, entering his 12th NFL season, still is a beast at age 33 and has been getting double-teamed all his life, so he should be fine once he gets the hang of the new scheme. After 10 years in Atlanta, Hall should provide solid depth as a backup end. The guys to watch are the players that will be in the middle of it all – Adams and Sopoaga. Adams has impressed with his technique and ability to shift to left end and give Young a breather, and Sopoaga – who missed his entire rookie season last year with back problems – has been everything the new regime hoped he'd be when the schematic change was made earlier this year. "I'm excited about Isaac," Nolan said. "He's big, he's strong and he holds a point well and the guys can't move him out of there. That's what a noseguard's supposed to do." And that's what the Niners need their noseguards to do in 2005 to make this defense work.


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