Season preview positional analysis: DBs

Clements the leader of a quality veteran secondary

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Defensive backs

The 49ers made a lot of headway in their secondary last season after the offseason additions of Pro Bowl performers Nate Clements and Michael Lewis.

Both players lived up to their lucrative contracts in their San Francisco debuts, spearheading a San Francisco secondary that was collectively the best the team has fielded in several years.

Now the 49ers have added more fresh young talent to develop behind their front-line starters, and in some cases their young talent is pushing those front-line starters. With several players in their prime and talented youngsters pushing for playing time, the San Francisco secondary continues to be a unit on the rise.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Pick more passes:
It was the San Francisco secondary's most glaring deficiency last season: Lack of interceptions. The 49ers finished with only 12 as a team, with 11 coming from defensive backs. The safety position provided only two of those picks, with starting free safety Mark Roman contributing none.

Lock down on third down: Because of an unproductive offense, the San Francisco defense was on the field more than any other team last year. That gave opponents a lot of extra opportunities, but the 49ers need to do better in coverage on the money-down passing downs to get off the field.

Getting their money's worth: While Nate Clements and Michael Lewis both played well last season, they must continue to flourish and take their games to the next level in 2008 now that they've had a full season in the San Francisco system. The pair of former Pro Bowlers signed contracts worth almost a combined $110 million when they joined the 49ers in 2007, so they need to keep paying dividends in a big way with standout performance.

The bottom line: The secondary did not look any better during this summer than it did last year. That's not saying it won't be better now that the same four starters from 2007 have had a year to mesh together and will start together again in the 2008 opener. The 49ers also the same top reserves at every position and kept 11 defensive backs on their final roster, a testament this is one of the most talented and cohesive units on the entire team.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Nate Clements

The day he became a 49er in 2007, Nate Clements became the highest-paid defender in NFL history. In his second season with the team, he no longer holds that distinction, but Clements is the kind of guy who wants to keep playing like it. His debut season with the 49ers was worthy of high praise, and it finished with him earning team co-MVP honors and recognition as a Pro Bowl alternate. Now Clements wants to take his game to the next level and the San Francisco defense along with him. A complete player at the position, Clements often shadowed the opposing team's best receiver and displayed his ball skills by leading the team with four interceptions, 18 passes defensed and three forced fumbles, and he also was outstanding in run support. Besides the plays he makes on his own, Clements also is the kind of player who makes those around him better.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener:
LC Nate Clements, RC Walt Harris, SS Michael Lewis, FS Mark Roman
Reserves: CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Donald Strickland, S Dashon Goldson, CB Marcus Hudson, S Keith Lewis, CB Tarell Brown, CB Reggie Smith
Key new arrivals: Reggie Smith
Key departures: None
Secondary coaches: Johnnie Lynn, fourth year with 49ers, 15th year of NFL experience; Vance Joseph, fourth year with 49ers, fourth year of NFL experience

Strengths: Three starters who have been to the Pro Bowl in recent seasons in cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris and safety Michael Lewis. Solid depth throughout the unit and several individuals who can contribute in different roles in secondary coverage packages.

Weaknesses: The unit needs more of a ball-hawking mentality, particularly at free safety, a position that contribute zero interceptions in 2007. Harris turned 34 in August and gets tested a lot more often now with Clements playing on the other side.

Fact check: Since 1988, 49ers cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris each rank among the NFL's top four players in forced fumbles. Harris is tied for the NFL lead with Dre Bly and Charles Woodson in that category with 17. Clements, who had a team-leading three forced fumbles last year, is next among the league leaders with 16.

Vital stat I: 423: Combined career NFL starts for starting secondary of Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Michael Lewis and Mark Roman.

Vital stat II: 11: Interceptions in 2007 by San Francisco defensive backs, 92 percent of the team's overall total of 12 picks.


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