Behind Enemy Lines 3: Niners' D

We tackle the questions in San Francisco's secondary, starting with the loss of Dashon Goldson. Goldson has been replaced by first-round pick Eric Reid. Plus, do the Niners have concerns about the depth at cornerback? And is Aldon Smith on track to set the record for sacks?

Bill Huber of Packer Report and Chris Biderman of Niners Digest go Behind Enemy Lines as part of our in-depth coverage leading up to Sunday's season-opening showdown. In Part 3, it's the first segment analyzing Green Bay's offense against San Francisco's defense.

BILL HUBER: How big of loss was Dashon Goldson, and is rookie Eric Reid ready to fill that void? 

CHRIS BIDERMAN: There's no question the loss of an All-Pro like Goldson hurt the 49ers from a leadership standpoint. But the team fills very good about Reid. While at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh was the only coach other than Les Miles to heavily recruit Reid, only because most other coaches knew Reid (a Geismar, La., native) to LSU was a done deal from the start. After the draft, the team came out and said Reid was the No. 1 safety on its board, despite Kenny Vaccaro going three spots earlier to New Orleans. But no matter how talented, replacing one of the better players at the position with a rookie is a risky proposition, especially going against a team led by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1.

Reid's physicality stood out right away during rookie minicamp. He's very long, athletic and has great range. But what really stands out is his ability to finish plays. He's a sure tackler that can wrap up with his long arms. And like any safety, he loves contact. From a schematics standpoint, the team feels comfortable with where he's at and put a lot on his plate during training camp. Donte Whitner said he gave Reid responsibilities of making calls and checks just to get him comfortable.

But Reid wasn't challenged down the field in coverage during the preseason. He was tested deep down the middle twice and had good position, but both balls were overthrown. His cover skills are the big question, but the coaching staff has liked the improvement they've seen from Reid in that area since joining the team. 

There's no question coming into their rookie seasons that Reid projects as a better prospect than Goldson, who was a fourth-round draft pick out of Washington. With proper development, Reid has the tools and pedigree to become a player on the same level as his predecessor. But the 49ers are taking a big risk in sticking a rookie at the back end of a defense that yielded big plays toward the end of the season. Expect Rodgers to do everything he can to manipulate Reid deep down the field, putting a lot of pressure on Whitner and the rest of the secondary to pick up the slack if the rookie makes any mistakes.

BILL: What's the bigger issue: safety or cornerback? Starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown seem OK but nothing more. Nickel corner Chris Culliver is out and Nnamdi Asomugha — a big name — is coming off a bad season.

CHRIS: I wouldn't say one is bigger than the other. The situations at both spots are less than ideal, especially going against the Packers this early.


Nnamdi Asomugha is the front-runner to be the third corner.
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Before his terrible week in New Orleans, Chris Culliver was emerging as a strong young corner. Quarterbacks had a 76.9 rating throwing against him, which was second on the team to Brown. He was the most athletic player in the secondary before the arrival of Reid and might have earned the starting job over Rogers had he not tore his ACL early in camp. Despite his indiscretions on media day, the team viewed Culliver highly. He was likely the biggest reason it didn't address the position in the draft until the seventh round. 

The team won't say who won the third cornerback job between Asomugha and Tramaine Brock, but all indications point to Asomugha being the guy. He's had a resurgent training camp and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has made sure to put him in position to utilize his skill-set in press coverage as much as possible — unlike the last two seasons in Philadelphia. The big question regarding Asomugha is his athleticism. With so many young, talented, athletic receivers, can the 32-year-old still hang with them? 

The 49ers were ranked No. 6 against the pass last season and saw a big drop-off in those numbers after Justin Smith (torn triceps) and Aldon Smith (torn labrum) got hurt. Both are healthy and should help out the secondary by pressuring Rodgers against Green Bay's offensive line, which is dealing with injury to its best player and starting a rookie.

BILL: Obviously, Aldon Smith neutralizes some of those coverage issues. Is he ready to take a run at Michael Strahan's sacks record? And is this dominant linebacker corps the reason why the Packers have had such troubles against the Niners' defense?

CHRIS: The incredible thing about Aldon Smith's 2012 was he had all 19.5 sacks through just 13 games. Having 5.5 against the Bears' porous o-line in Week 10 certainly helped. But he suffered his shoulder injury following Week 12 and didn't register a sack from Week 14 on, playoffs included. He played through his torn labrum and had surgery following the Super Bowl. 

A lot was made of Justin Smith's injury and the fact that Aldon Smith relied so heavily on their two-man game that has proven so effective. But I believe it was Aldon Smith's shoulder injury that was more to blame than Justin Smith's torn triceps for his lack of production late in the season. Both players are back to 100 percent and primed for great years. Breaking Strahan's sacks record is one of Aldon Smith's goals heading into the season. He also opens as a leading candidate for defensive player of the year in just his third year in the league.

Ahmad Brooks was the only starting linebacker not to be named a first-team All-Pro in 2012. Instead he was second team (although he was voted first team by Sports Illustrated). The group consisting of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Smith and Brooks is tough on every team, not only the Packers. As long as the unit remains intact, San Francisco will have one of the best defenses in football. The 49ers also have more depth at outside linebacker this season after using a third-round draft pick on Corey Lemonier out of Auburn. Last season, they broke camp with virtually no reserves at the position. If they could spell Smith and Brooks without much drop-off, it could help them in the long run.

Willis is coming off a fractured hand suffered early in training camp. He didn't play during the preseason, but he's one of the few players that doesn't need any preseason reps to be ready for the year. He's played with a broken hand and heavy cast twice in the past, once at Ole Miss and once with San Francisco. He looks ready to go by all indications.



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