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1 - San Francisco 49ers
While the offense should return to its familiar groove, the defensealtered by many new facescould be stingier than ever
Mooch has the right idea. When you're one of the NFL's elite teams, lording over the landfill that is the rest of the NFC West, you waive your right to complain about the small stuff. This season Young has Jerry Rice back, plus Mariucci's word that the attack will be opened up. The question this year is not whether the 49ers' offense, which dipped to No. 12 in the NFL last season, will regain its status as one of the league's most prolificit willbut whether the team's defense, which allowed the fewest yards per game in the NFL, will be better or worse.
The answer could come down to how an obscure, relatively light (278 pounds) fourth-year defensive tackle named Junior Bryant handles his new assignment. Rather than shop for a high-profile replacement for Dana Stubblefield, who took his 15 sacks to the Washington Redskins as a free agent in February, the Niners promoted Bryant, a former undrafted free agent who has performed well in spot duty over the last three seasons. If Bryant plays as well as the 49ers' brass thinks he can, opposing offenses will pay a higher price for double- and triple-teaming the other tackle, Bryant Young. Graybeard offensive lineman Harris Barton calls Young "not just the best player on the defense, but the best player on the team."
Indeed, the departure of Stubblefield was made bearable by the presence of Young, whom 49ers coaches regard as the better player. Says one coach, "Stubblefield was a good, stout player with good technique. Young is not as big"he goes 6'3", 280, to Stubblefield's 6'2", 315"but he has more speed and quickness. He's explosive. He can embarrass you."
The Niners were embarrassed when one of their marquee free-agent signees, former Packers defensive end Gabe Wilkins, showed up with a bum knee that required surgery in early April. Having intimated that Wilkinswho is now questionable for the team's openerwould render Chris Doleman expendable, the 49ers suddenly found themselves in the position of having to backtrack. Doleman, a 14-year veteran who had a dozen sacks last season, leveraged a $400,000 raise, to $2.4 million, out of the contrite front office.
With the return to Carolina of outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who had 10 1/2 sacks for San Francisco in a part-time role, the 49ers have bid adieu to four players (the others are Stubblefield, Brett Maxie and Marvin Washington) who accounted for 27 1/2 of their 54 sacks in '97. "That's a lot of pass-rushing pressure to say goodbye to," frets secondary coach Jim Mora. "You bet I think about that."
Indeed, the puffs of smoke periodically arising from San Francisco's secondary last season signaled the singeing, rather than the selection, of a Pope. Right cornerback Marquez Pope suffered a sprained left foot early in the season, and upon his return he lacked his usual speed and swagger. Opposing quarterbacks noticed. On the other side, former All-Pro Rod Woodson offered conclusive proof that he was a shell of his former self. The pair was victimized by Brett Favre early and often in Green Bay's NFC title-game victory.
Coming along more slowly as he labored to grasp the Niners' complex scheme was free-agent middle linebacker Winfred Tubbs. The former New Orleans Saint takes the spot vacated by the retired Gary Plummer, and it looks to be an upgrade: Tubbs, a terrific talent, had 160 tackles for the Saints last season. But whereas he was free to pursue the ball in New Orleans, he has to adapt to a more restricted role in San Francisco. "Here, I'm more of a plugger," Tubbs explained after a practice in late July. "I'm taking on offensive linemen. It's a big difference."
Tubbs was stating a fact, not airing a gripe. This ex-Saint is one 49er who knows better than to complain.
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