Before he flew to Houston for Saturday’s preseason game against the Texans, strong safety Donte Whitner spoke at the podium in the 49ers’ media tent. He discussed the way the defense practices, what he’s learned from Randy Moss and how good the offense will be this season. Here’s a full transcript of Whitner’s press conference.
Q: The fact that you’re bringing back all the starters on your defense – how rare is that and how much of an edge does that give you over other teams?
WHITNER: It is unique to have everybody back, especially in the age of free agency. We had a couple guys who were free agents, like Carlos (Rogers) and Dashon (Goldson) – Dashon had the franchise tag, but Carlos had the opportunity to go other places and he decided to come back. Very unique.
It gives us an edge because it allows us to build on what we did last year, build on the details of the defense. We all know the outside framework of it, but there are a lot of different things that go into this defense depending on what the offense does, based on what they show us. I don’t think you can learn everything playing this defense one year. That’s almost impossible. I think we’re getting there, though. We’re almost at the point where we know where each and every player is going to be without having to say anything. I think it gives us a big jump over the rest of the people in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and dominate right away. It does mean that we’ll be better suited for what offenses throw at us this year, and they’re going to have to change up some things.
Q: Is there any one thing the defense got better at this week in practice?
WHITNER: We just work on the base fundamentals of football each and every week. First and foremost, we want to stop the run. We preach that every day. The second thing – we don’t want to give up big plays. And the third thing is we want to get turnovers, so we practice that every day, whether it’s a guy running down the field in practice and somebody running behind him and stripping the football, or whether it’s getting interceptions. We understand that all that stuff translates to wins. If you can get two or three turnovers per game, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a win in that football game. We understand that even when we’re going in to make a tackle, we’re going after that football because it translates to wins. We focus on the fundamentals and keep those sharp. As soon as you get away from the fundamentals, you’re going to start losing.
Q: What kind of drills do you do in practice to preach turnovers?
WHITNER: We do interception drills, we do fumble-recovery drills, we do punch-the-ball-out-from-the-back drills – we just do a number of different simulated things that go on in the football game. There are a lot of teams – defenses – that step on the football field, and as soon as a guy rips a run and they go to make a tackle they go into a panic, like, “We just have to get this guy down.” On our defense, we don’t feel that way. We actually want the first guy to hold the guy up, and we want to take the football from him. Sometimes it’s the guy who’s first in that has the opportunity to strip the ball – I’ve done it couple times, Pat does it all the time, NaVarro has done it, Dashon has knocked the ball loose.
The drills we do are a testament to our coaching staff. Some guys get tired of going over the fundamentals, but that’s what wins football games.
Q: Are those drills unique to here, or are they all over the league?
WHITNER: I think they’re all over the league, but sometimes you can just go through the motions, or you can do things and actually apply it to a football game. Here, we apply it to a football game. We don’t just preach and practice it, when we go into a football game we’re telling each other each and every snap, “Whoever gets to the ball first, strip the ball out, or hold him up so we can get it out.” It’s engrained in us, and we’re going to continue to preach that.
Q: When do you know that you’re ready for the regular season?
WHITNER: It’s more of a feel that you get when you’re out there on the football field. Early on in the preseason, when you step on the football field, you tend to be a little nervous, kind of a little more of the jitters than you normally have in the regular season. Just because it’s fresh; you’re back out there playing in regular, live-game action, and it’s different. I just say, somewhere around that third game, you should be comfortable and ready to play football. Somewhere around game 3, we’ll be out there with a really good quarterback, an offense that he really is still learning, and we’ll be able to test ourselves and see where we’re at as a defense. We’ll go out there … Houston has a great offense, also. Last year, they moved the ball on us quite easily. So, we want to go out there and test ourselves this game also.
Q: Do you know how much you’re going to play this game?
WHITNER: I don’t know. Coach hasn’t really told us anything. He doesn’t really tell us until we get into game action. You have to keep everybody ready. If you tell a guy that he’s only playing five plays, or six plays, he might not take those six plays as seriously as he would if it was a normal game, where you know you’re going to play 70-75 plays. So, he doesn’t really tell us.
Q: How important to get to a spot where you know you’re ready to play an entire game?
WHITNER: I would say that third game, when you normally play a quarter and a half, a whole entire first half, you might play one series after halftime. As many plays, as much as we run around out here, I don’t think anybody out there would have a problem being in condition to go through a whole game. It’s just how much they’re going to play you or risk injury at this point in the preseason.
Q: Have you learned anything from veteran receivers such as Moss and Manningham?
WHITNER: The only thing I would say I learn from them is, let your play speak. A lot of those guys don’t really say too much, especially Moss. He’s really a quiet guy outside of the football field, keeps to himself, but when he steps on the football field, he’s all work. His body of work really speaks for itself. He’s like fifth across the board in every category as far as receivers go. You can just watch him each and every day. He’s one of the first guys here, one of the last guys to leave, he’s always in the cold tub, he’s always swimming in the bottom of the swimming pool we have in there, steam room, sauna, ice tub. You can see why this guy’s been in the league for 14 years and been able to accomplish so many things. So, if anything, you take that from it.
Q: Encouraged by strides made by Alex Smith and the receivers of late?
A: Yeah, very encouraged. I know it’s going to sound, I might be a little biased, but I feel like we have as many playmakers as any of the good offenses in the NFL have. I feel like across the board that we can match up with any of those offenses. In the backfield, having two, three guys that can carry the load each and every Sunday; having a quarterback that knows where to go with the football, not going to make mistakes; we have probably two of the fastest tight ends in the NFL in Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis; on the outside, you have speedy guys. You have Randy Moss, you have Crabtree, you have a lot of those guys that can do multiple things and play multiple positions. So, I believe that with execution and with detailed work, paying attention to detail, that these guys are going to be a really explosive offense. With the acquisitions that we made, with Randy and all of these guys that can open it up on the outside, make you play double coverage over top, is really going to allow our run game to flourish. That’s how you play football. If you don’t have playmakers on the outside, you load the box and make the quarterback beat you or you stop the run. If you have playmakers on the outside, the defense can’t do that. You have to be prepared for Randy Moss going deep on you or Ted Ginn running past somebody, so you have to keep two safeties over the top, which allows you six or seven men in the box, which allows Kendall Hunter to run the football and allows Frank to run the football. Everybody helps everybody out out there, so that’s why I believe they’re going to be really good.