49ers key to success: OLB Tully Banta-Cain
The 49ers need to bring heat from the edge to make their 3-4 defensive system work, and that takes a certain type of player who not only can rush the passer, but also can handle the duties of an outside linebacker in the detailed system which the 49ers have committed to, finally, as their full-time base scheme this season. Banta-Cain is one of those players, as he demonstrated last season when a starting opportunity finally fell his way with the Patriots. He started four games in December as New England made its playoff push, and ultimately finished the season with a career-high 5.5 sacks to go along with 43 tackles. Getting to the quarterback is his specialty, and that's just what the San Francisco defense needs. So the 49ers brought Banta-Cain - a Bay Area native who grew up in Mountain View and played in college at Cal - home during the first stage of free agency with a three-year, $8.9 million deal that included a $2.9 million signing bonus. So what does he bring to the 49ers? Let Banta-Cain tell you himself after SFI asked him that very question. "I just bring myself," he said. "That's the one thing … I have a lot of confidence in the ability that I have and what I can do. There's a lot of talent on this team as well, but I think any time you bring in new guys, you're bringing in new types of talent, guys that are good at things better than others. "Me, personally, I know one of my main abilities is to get after the quarterback. I look at the stat sheet last year, and it didn't seem like there were a whole lot of sacks. There were some, but it wasn't at the top of the league. So, hopefully, this year what I bring will channel through the rest of the guys is that we all get after the quarterback and play off each other's strengths." That's what the 49ers are counting on. They ranked 21st in the NFL last year with only 28.5 sacks, which was better than the 27 of the season before but still weak by NFL standards and not nearly enough to allow the San Francisco defense to enjoy steady success. If Banta-Cain can bring the threat of consistent pressure from the right edge, it will help practically ever other area of the 3-4 system, which is predicated on getting a certain performance from each of its parts. The 49ers envision Banta-Cain and second-year linebacker Manny Lawson not only being the starters in their base 3-4, but also their top bringers of the heat from the edge. The threat of Banta-Cain on the opposite side will help Lawson, who made a smooth transition to linebacker last year after playing defensive end in college, but did not have the kind of season as a pass rusher that the team had hoped for, finishing with only three sacks. As the season progressed, the 49ers often dropped him into coverage on passing downs. With Banta-Cain in the fold this spring, Lawson said, "I'm actually getting to rush the passer, just rush and create havoc in the backfield. As for right now, it's set (at the two outside LB positions), and both of us get our opportune times to rush. Bringing Tully in, bringing in another 3-4 linebacker, I think that's what the 49ers are expecting from us, having both of us rush the passer from either side, so you got to know which one is coming." That element of uncertainty is vital to the success of the 3-4 scheme, which stamps newcomer Banta-Cain as a key individual in the team's 2007 progress. "I think we have all the tools and all the players to really make a big impact this season," Banta-Cain said. "I'm really excited about the opportunity to be a part of it, and I think we have a lot to look forward to."
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