3 Burning Questions: Linebacker

Blame it on the linebackers. Or thank them wholeheartedly. They're the primary reason that Mike Nolan, after being hired as San Francisco's new coach in January, took one long look at his defensive personnel and quickly changed the structure of San Francisco's basic scheme on that side of the football.

The Niners' team strength lies in their linebackers. So Nolan decided to get as many as possible on the field at once, and the 2005 49ers figure to be better for it.

That decision has Jamie Winborn joining some select company, starting in the team's new 3-4 system alongside tackle machines Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith and two-time Pro Bowler Julian Peterson.

The talent doesn't exactly stop flowing with that fantastic foursome.

Andre Carter, who had 12.5 sacks as a defensive end in 2002, has joined the crowd and will rotate into the mix in a situational role on the edge. There's more promising young talent in other reserve roles, making this clearly the strongest unit on the entire team – again.

And the 49ers will be relying dearly on this talented unit to make the new scheme work.

Q: Anybody here not completely on board with the new system?

Get serious. The 3-4 is a linebacker's dream, built to make them stars and household names. Most NFL observers already have heard of Peterson, but Winborn, Smith and Ulbrich also will get more exposure this year as they are freed to make plays as a product of the system. That freedom comes with some added responsibility, too, but these are some of the best players and most intense individuals on the entire San Francisco squad. They are embracing the opportunity to have an even bigger impact on the success of the defense in particular and the entire team in general.

Q: If these guys are so good, why was the defense so lousy last season?

It's difficult to hold this unit accountable for San Francisco's defensive collapse of 2004, when the 49ers sank to 24th in the final league rankings while surrendering a whopping 452 points, the most in the NFL and one short of the franchise record. When looking at the big picture – and also the statistics sheet – it could have been even worse without these guys around to give the defense some of its largest doses of leadership and quality performance. Inside backers Smith and Ulbrich each had 167 tackles, and Winborn contributed 104 despite missing two games and only starting 10. Peterson, coming off his tremendous first-team All-Pro season of 2003, also was rounding into top form before his season ended abruptly when he tore his left Achilles tendon in Week 5. And these guys didn't contribute just tackles. They were some of the biggest playmakers on the team. Winborn had 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Smith, who missed two games, recovered two fumbles and had 1.5 sacks. Ulbrich knocked away three passes, forced a fumble and recorded a sack and an interception. The San Francisco defense struggled with these guys performing well in it. Think how bad it could have been without them.

Q: So how good can it be with them?

Perhaps, finally, as good as some people thought it could be just a few seasons ago when the San Francisco defense was considered one of the top rising units in the league under former coordinator Jim Mora. Billy Davis – a former linebackers coach – occupies that position with the team now, and both he and Nolan are 3-4 gurus who know the system inside out and – most significantly – know which buttons to push to make it work. Throw in the imposing presence of assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary, and this unit has arguably some of the best linebacker tutelage in the NFL. Combine that with arguably some of the best talent in the league at the position - along with some promising youngsters to add quality depth - and the 49ers just might have something going here.

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