Secondary ready to step up to test vs. Saints

The 49ers secondary finds out what it's all about Sunday in the Superdome when it faces QB Drew Brees and the NFL's top-ranked passing game. And the Niners, who are playing some of their best pass defense of the past decade, will do it without top CB Shawntae Spencer, who's out for the season. But in an indication this secondary is built to last, the 49ers are prepared to move forward.

Unlike recent seasons, the loss of such a key component may not present such a formidable problem. The 49ers kept seven cornerbacks on their final roster this year, and they've already had several backups step up during the team's 2-1 start.

The 49ers will need more of that now that Spencer, the team's No. 3 corner and nickel back, is out for the year. Spencer was injured in Week 2 against Seattle and underwent season-ending surgery Wednesday to repair a torn ligament in his left knee.

Spencer was the top cornerback on the roster when the Mike Nolan regime arrived in 2005, and he has settled into the pivotal No. 3 role as the team has upgraded at the position ever since, bringing in Pro Bowl veterans Walt Harris and Nate Clements, who now man the edges as the team's starting corners.

"Shawntae's a great player and any time you lose somebody like that, people have got to step up," said veteran cornerback Donald Strickland, a key backup for the 49ers the past two seasons. "When one man falls, the other one's got to pick up the torch and carry it on. And that's what we do and that's what we try to be in our secondary here."

Strickland, San Francisco's fourth cornerback during the first two games, also missed last week's game against Detroit with a knee injury. But second-year player Tarell Brown stepped into the nickel role against the Lions and played well, producing his first career interception as the 49ers limited Detroit and its fine passing game to just 124 net yards passing during a 31-13 rout.

The 49ers enter Sunday's game against the Saints with the NFL's seventh-ranked passing defense. San Francisco will be facing a Saints passing offense that ranks No. 1 in the league, though New Orleans will be without tight end Jeremy Shockey, who is out at least a month after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.

San Francisco hasn't finished a season ranked higher than 17th in NFL pass defense in the past 10 years. The 49ers finished 26th or lower six times during that span.

But this year could be different. The 49ers have been methodically building a quality secondary, and the team was so pleased with its depth on the defensive back end this summer that it kept 11 defensive backs on its final roster - 12 if you include veteran return specialist Allen Rossum, who has nine career starts at cornerback.

"Every guy is just doing their responsibility," Clements said. "Everybody is doing what we do. Once we do that, the plays will come. We don't have no goal to be seventh in the league. We want to be in that top spot. I think that's our mindset now, is to be in that top spot."

Strickland practiced this week and expects to play against the Saints. The 49ers also have been pleased with the performance of Brown, who was limited by injuries as a rookie last year after surprising the team as a fifth-round draft pick with his fine play during the 2007 exhibition season.

Brown saw the most extensive action of his career against the Lions, and he's preparing for more as the 49ers plan for an opponent that's averaging 315.3 yards passing a game. The Niners aren't saying exactly who will move into lead roles in defensive coverage packages previously occupied by Spencer - Brown and Strickland should become more prominent now in defensive game plans - but they are confident they have quality players who can step up.

The other backups also are capable players. Safety Keith Lewis has starting experience, safety Dashon Goldson is a young up-and-comer, and young cornerbacks Marcus Hudson and rookie Reggie Smith both show a lot of promise, with Hudson playing a role in coverage during his first two seasons in the league.

But if last week's game was any indication, Brown could get the first shot at replacing Spencer.

"I've learned a lot from these older guys here, and any time you get your opportunity, you don't want to miss a beat," Brown said. "I don't think we're losing anything with me on the field. The next guy has to be able to fill in and do the job just as well or even better, and that's what I'm working hard to do. I don't think there will be a slack off at all."

With veterans Harris and Clements at cornerback and Michael Lewis and Mark Roman at safety, the 49ers have the most experienced starting secondary in the NFL. That quartet has combined to play 507 games with 435 starts.

Now in their second season playing together, that group has started strong despite facing quality passing games led by quarterbacks Kurt Warner of Arizona, Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle and Jon Kitna of Detroit.

Now it must face a potent New Orleans attack directed by Drew Brees, who leads the NFL in passing yards (980), completions (84) and completion percentage (74.3). Running back Reggie Bush is the NFL's leading receiver with 26 catches.

The 49ers typically use several other defensive backs over the course of a game, so the veterans feel assured the team can capably fill the void left by Spencer. San Francisco had at least five defensive backs on the field during every play of its 33-30 overtime victory at Seattle in Week 2, the game in which Spencer was hurt. The 49ers have several defensive sub-packages in which they utilize extra defensive backs.

"Shawntae's a guy we all look up to," Harris said. "He's a big loss to us. But we're a pretty tight-knit group on the back end, and we definitely have guys that can kind of step up and fill those shoes."

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