SANTA CLARA –
The 49ers new starting strong safety, Donte Whitner, spoke in a group interview this afternoon.
Whitner recorded the fifth most tackles in the NFL last season, and the most amongst defensive backs with 140.
In this interview Whitner describes the philosophy of this new Vic Fangio defense in more depth than any member of the 49er defense has gone on record so far. He makes compelling comparisons to the Pittsburgh and Green Bay defenses.
Here’s the complete interview.
Q: Why are you such a good tackler?
WHITNER: I think it starts every day in practice. I was blessed to have a great defensive backs coach in Buffalo named George Catavolos, and one thing he always preached was don’t just run up to the football. Make sure you knees are bent and you’re focused on the right things, and even if you’re not tackling loud in practice you should do it each and every rep. I think that’s where it came from.
Q: How does it feel to be here?
WHITNER: It feels excellent. I know that these facilities here are a 100 percent upgrade from where I come from. That’s no slight against them (Buffalo), but it feels like I’m just entering the NFL. These are wonderful facilities, wonderful field, wonderful organization. I’m just glad to be here and I’m glad to help.
Q: Are you excited about your new number?
WHITNER: Yeah, this year I’m going to wear No. 31. New organization, new team, new everything. I want to start fresh and I’m looking forward to it.
Q: What was the background with your old No. 20?
WHITNER: Coming into the National Football League I looked up to a lot of guys who wore No. 20. Now after being in the NFL for five years and having the opportunity to come here and play I feel like it’s time for a change. I get my own number, my own identity, and it’s going to be No. 31.
Q: A few days ago it seemed like you were heading to Cincinnati. What happened?
WHITNER: It was a change of heart. I thought I was going to be a Cincinnati Bengal, but Coach (Harbaugh) called me and told me that they have a young secondary here and he’d like me to come help lead this secondary. I weighed my options, Cincinnati or San Francisco, and I felt like San Francisco was the better choice – better football team, better chance to win.
Q: Did the 49ers just make a late push for you?
WHITNER: It really wasn’t late. It was San Francisco and Cincinnati all along. I was talking back and forth to San Francisco and Cincinnati. It just so happened that both offered approximately at the same time, so I had to make a choice. I’m glad I chose San Francisco.
Q: What’s your style? Are you trying to be a physical presence or are you trying to get interceptions?
WHITNER: In this style of defense here, it’s a 3-4 style, and it actually comes from the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. So I think here in this mold they’re going to have me do sort of what (Troy) Polamalu does, and I’m looking forward to it. In Buffalo, previous years we played Tampa 2. I wasn’t able to be as physical as I would like. And then we switched to a 3-4 last year, and we had a young front. So I’m looking forward to being able to disguise the blitz and really fool with quarterbacks.
Q: Do you know much about Reggie Smith?
WHITNER: I don’t, but from what I hear from the guys and what I saw today during the walkthrough and from watching some of the film, he can make plays and he really knows what he’s doing out there. So I’m looking forward to getting to work with him.
Q: In the past here they’ve talked about the free and strong safety being interchangeable. But your skill set it different than Smith’s. Do you think that’s a good compliment?
WHITNER: I do think it’s a good compliment, sort of like Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh. You have two different skill sets, and especially in this type of defense, the 3-4 where you want to come after guys, you have to have guys with two different skill sets. You have to have a guy who likes to cover and get to the middle of the field and get his hands on the football, and you have to have a guy who can roam around and really understand the game, and make plays with his eyes, help the guys around him and do anything. I think that’s the mold I’m going to be in this year.
Q: 140 tackles last year – that’s astounding. Did you elevate your game?
WHITNER: I would say I elevated, but we made the switch to the 3-4 defense which allowed me to do some of things that I wasn’t able to do in the Tampa 2. The Tampa 2 is basically guys start dropping, and if the ball doesn’t come your way you don’t have a chance to make a play. In a 3-4 defense, there’s not really a gap that you have. It’s letting guys be football players. I had 140 tackles, but I also had five interceptions. The prime-time safeties in the NFL get their hands on the football and they catch those interceptions and that’s what I plan on doing.
Q: Is this an aggressive defense?
WHITNER: Yes. The front seven is set right now. We have the backers, we have the defensive line, and we have the knowledge and guys who really have been in this league a long time in this front seven. What we’re really going to have to shore up is the secondary. I take responsibility for that, I know Reggie takes responsibility for that, and we’re going to come out and we’re going to work.We have a lot of work to do on the back end, and I think everybody here knows it. I know that we know it in the secondary and we’re looking forward to it. I’m going to do everything I can do, and I’m sure the guys are willing to work and want to do everything they can do to make sure we have a top secondary in the National Football League, and it starts with that.
Q: Is your role similar in this 3-4 as to last year’s 3-4 in Buffalo?
WHITNER: In this 3-4, there’s a lot of disguise built into the defense. Anybody who knows about defensive football and playing the good quarterbacks in the NFL is, you can’t allow them to read your mail or you’ll lose every time. So, even if the players aren’t really focused on disguise, it’s already built into the defense throughout with the calls… I think it will be built in for me to do a lot of different things in this defense, throughout the calls and to show somewhere and end up somewhere else. That’s how the good football teams do it, by confusing quarterbacks and confusing offensive lines. And that’s what we look forward to doing here.
Q: Who made the call in Buffalo?
WHITNER: I made all the calls in Buffalo. Being the strong safety there in that 3-4 defense, I made a lot of the calls there, even to the corners, nickel,and sometimes even to the defensive linemen. So, I’m looking forward to taking that same responsibility here.
Q: Did you have the radio in your helmet?
WHITNER: No, I don’t have the radio in my helmet. But, the guy that has radio in his helmet, he just gets the call from the sidelines. The most important part is, once you get that call, there’s a number of calls built into the defense that you have to spread out to the guys. If you don’t, then somebody is going to blow a coverage. So I think that’s the most important part. Getting the call is very important, but the calls within the calls are very, very important because something can change based on a guy’s movement, or a formation shift. And if one guy is thinking one thing, and the safety is thinking another, somebody’s getting the wrong signal on that.
Q: What responsibility do you feel to get the job done here?
WHITNER: I feel very responsible. I saw that, I think, the guys in the secondary had 14 starts combined. Coming into the NFL and being thrown into the fire as a rookie… I started Game 2 against Tom Brady and, you know, it was tough. So I know that without a lot of experience, without being out there on an action game field, it’s tough. It’s different in practice, you’re kind of comfortable with the calls, you’re comfortable with your coaches, you’re comfortable with your teammates. But once live bullets get to flying, and you get guys motioning and you don’t know what to expect, I think that’s where the experience comes in. And I take responsibility for getting this secondary in San Francisco to be one of the top secondaries. Right now, I think we’re a long way away from that right now, but we’ll be ready Game 1.
Q: Are you already the leader of this secondary?
WHITNER: It’s up for other guys to start naming leaders. But in this secondary, I’m going to take on a leadership role.
Past 49er defenses haven’t called many blitzes for their safeties. If Whitner could be even 75 percent of what Polamalu is, the 49ers’ defense could be dangerous.
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