Niners at the bye: What's right and wrong

With the 49ers taking a break this Sunday at their bye, SFI breaks down the team by position, analyzing what's right and wrong and whether each unit is getting better or worse since the season began. Here, we take a look at the defense and special teams.


Old warhorse Bryant Young was the NFL leader with four sacks after two weeks, and he continues to be a force at left end in his 14th NFL season. The 49ers also have been getting inspired play at right end from Marques Douglas, who had six or more tackles in each of San Francisco's first five games and is spending a lot of time in opposing backfields. Isaac Sopoaga carried his fine play of the summer into the regular season, and he and Aubrayo Franklin have provided a solid 1-2 punch on the nose.

WHAT'S WRONG: Franklin hasn't exactly been a force at the point of attack, and the nose tackles haven't contributed much in the pass rush. The 49ers have yet to see anything from third-round draft pick Ray McDonald.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Better. The 35-year-old Young and 30-year-old Douglas seem to be getting better with age, and they have carried a unit that is holding its own in an improved defense.


Rookie Patrick Willis is what's right. He began his career by being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week the first two weeks of the season, and he instantly stepped in as a natural sideline-to-sideline playmaker. Willis had 51 tackles a month into the season and was on a pace for a 200-tackle season. He was third in the NFL in tackles as the 49ers reached their bye. Manny Lawson also was playing extremely well within the 3-4 system before being injured. Derek Smith has been productive inside next to Willis and is second on the team in tackles. Tully Banta-Cain has occasionally made his presence known, and Hannibal Navies has stepped up in Lawson's absence.

WHAT'S WRONG: Lawson, a dynamic presence on the strong side who got off to a fast start, was lost for the season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a Week 3 practice, depriving the defense of one of its top playmakers. Banta-Cain has not been much of a factor as an edge rusher, which was the primary reason he was brought in as a free agent during the offseason. The 49ers have been getting very little pressure from their outside linebackers in passing situations, and the entire defense has suffered because of it. Brandon Moore – San Francisco's leader in both tackles and sacks last season – doesn't get on the field much and hasn't made any of the impact he had on the defense last season.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Better. The loss of Lawson hurts big-time, but the emergence of Willis in the middle makes this unit a vital element of the San Francisco defense.


Nate Clements is living up to his big contract and becoming a feared defender on the left corner, where opponents don't often test him with much success as they look elsewhere in the secondary. Clements often is around the ball when it is in his vicinity, and he made a huge play to knock the ball out of Torry Holt's hands and through the back of the end zone for a touchback in Week 2, a play that probably saved San Francisco's victory in that game. Opponents come after Walt Harris more now with Clements on the other side, but he still is making plays, though not at the level of his 2006 Pro Bowl season. Newcomer Michael Lewis adds a physical presence at strong safety and is among the team's leading tacklers. Mark Roman has been solid as a hard-hitting ballhawk at free safety, and former starter Shawntae Spencer has been quite an upgrade as the No. 3/nickel corner.

WHAT'S WRONG: For the most part, this unit has played very well and has factored greatly in the success the 49ers have had defensively thus far. There have been a few opportunities for interceptions that were not capitalized on. The primary thing that has gone wrong for this unit is the lack of help it is getting up front from a sub-par pass rush.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Better. After finishing 26th in the NFL in passing defense last year, the 49ers were up to 11th in that category a quarter of the way into the season this year, thanks in large part to the efforts put forth here. It could be the strongest positional unit on the team.


Punter Andy Lee has been booming punts at a prodigious pace, leading the NFL in average per punt and the NFC in net average a quarter of the way into the season and playing a big factor in the battle for field position on a weekly basis. For the most part, the coverage units have been excellent, with special teams standouts Keith Lewis, Michael Robinson and Maurice Hicks leading the way. Steady Joe Nedney was perfect on all his place-kicks a month into the season, and he also put down another successful onside kick. After signing Michael Lewis in Week 4 to return punts, the veteran responded immediately by averaging 10.5 yards on six returns in his debut with the team.

WHAT'S WRONG: The kickoff coverage unit had one big glitch, allowing a 98-yard return for a touchdown by Allen Rossum in Week 3 in a play that swayed the momentum of the game in Pittsburgh's favor. Brandon Williams, the team's third-round draft pick in 2006, continued to give the 49ers weak production as a returner and finally was released in Week 4. The 49ers have not been getting much production on kickoff returns from Hicks, who was one of the NFC's best in that category last season.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Better. The 49ers were good here last year, but are even better this season and getting an effort that has factored greatly in the team's victories thus far.

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