49ers’ fill-ins can’t come up blank

This is my Saturday column.

Before we get to the 49ers’ upcoming preseason game, here’s a brief history lesson.

In 2010, the 49ers’ defense was ordinary. It ranked 13th in yards allowed and 16th in points given up. Four current starters were key contributors on that 2010 defense – Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald.

After the 2010 season, the 49ers drafted Aldon Smith and signed Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. Tarell Brown and NaVorro Bowman, who hardly played for the Niners in 2010, became key starters in 2011. And the defense became one of the best. It ranked fourth in yards and second in points that season, and it ranked top-five in both categories in 2012 and 2013.

Rogers, Whitner and Brown are no longer Niners – they signed with different teams this offseason. Bowman will miss at least the first half of the season rehabbing a torn ACL and MCL. Aldon Smith could miss the first half of the season, too – the NFL hasn’t yet announced how many games it will suspend him.

Without Smith, Bowman, Rogers, Whitner and Brown will the 49ers defense revert to mediocrity? The answer depends on their replacements. Two of them — Antoine Bethea and Michael Wilhoite — currently are secure in their roles and may not play much on Sunday. But a few replacements will play extensively against the Broncos.

Replacement No. 1: Corey Lemonier. He’s replacing Aldon Smith, arguably the best pass rusher in football. The 49ers did not have a strong four-man pass rush before they drafted Aldon Smith. He changed that right away. His first practice as a 49er, he made veteran left tackle Joe Staley look silly. Staley couldn’t get his hands on him. Smith has longer arms than most offensive linemen and he has quick, powerful hands like Bruce Lee. Smith practically karate chops offensive linemen’s arms. They can’t touch him, let alone block him.

Lemonier has none of that ability. He’s a good athlete, about the same size as Aldon Smith, but he doesn’t have Bruce Lee hands. Offensive tackles easily tie up Lemonier. In practice, he struggles to beat even the backup tackles like Carter Bykowski. Last Thursday, the Ravens occasionally blocked Lemonier with a rookie tight end named Crockett Gilmore and got away with it.

Lemonier played 70 snaps against the Ravens and recorded one sack on a play in which backup safety Bubba Ventrone blitzed. Lemonier was ineffective when the 49ers didn’t bliltz. The entire 49ers’ four-man rush was ineffective, actually. All three of the 49ers’ sacks came as a result of blitzing.

Watch Lemonier’s pass rushing technique against the Broncos. Can he beat first-string offensive tackles? Can he beat second-string offensive tackles? Can he beat blocking tight ends? If not, the 49ers’ pass rush will be in major trouble when the regular season starts and defenses game plan to exploit him – they may be able to block him with a tight end and therefore double-team Justin Smith.

Replacement No. 2: Jimmie Ward. He’s replacing Carlos Rogers as the nickel back, the corner who covers the slot receiver. Ward should be an immediate upgrade over Rogers as a run defender and a blitzer. Ward was a safety in college and hits hard for a shrimp. But can he cover? For what it’s worth, he has not covered well in training camp. He always seems to be a step behind the receiver downfield. He hasn’t been able to handle quick little Devon Wylie who probably won’t make the team.

Ward will match up on Sunday against Wes Welker. Welker is Ward’s toughest test of the offseason so far.

Replacement No. 3: Chris Culliver. He’s replacing Tarell Brown as the starting right cornerback. Culliver can shut down the best wide receivers on short and intermediate routes. During Friday afternoon’s practice in Levi’s Stadium, Culliver erased Michael Crabtree, didn’t give him an inch of separation.

But Culliver gets beaten deep by anybody who runs fast. On Friday, he got beaten deep by L’Damian Washington, an undrafted receiver whom the Cowboys cut a few weeks ago.

As the starting right corner, Culliver will match up frequently against fast wide receivers – offenses tend to put their deep-threat receivers on that side of the field. The first four weeks of the regular season, Culliver will cover Terrance Williams, Alshon Jeffery, Michael Floyd and Riley Cooper. All four averaged at least 16 yards per catch last season. The last time Culliver faced Floyd, Culliver gave up 5 catches, 89 yards and a touchdown.

Culliver will face Demaryius Thomas on Sunday. Thomas is one of the best and most complete receivers in football. He can get open short, intermediate and deep. Can Culliver hold his own against him? He’d better. He will face Thomas again Week 7.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 59 Comments

  1. You left out a key ingredient to why the defense got better – the offense got better.

  2. Ward cant be much worse than rodgers
    Last year we managed while willis was out
    Last year we managed while aldon was out
    Lets hope culliver or another CB breaks out..
    Either way
    We should be fine..
    Barring any further injuries
    Aldon n bowman come back for a
    Playoff push…

  3. I heard Lemonier worked out with Justin/Ray and put on 10 pounds of muscle. The kid has an explosive 1st step, and Brooks I promise you will be a terror. I anxious to see if Lynch rules when part of the defensive mob…..

    1. Grant raises an interesting point about Lemonier though – he doesn’t use his hands as well as the better pass rushers do. Something he needs to work on. Relentless motor though. Lots to like about him.

      1. According to reports, he’s been studying Aldon and his hand techniques, so it’s not as if he isn’t cognizant of the aspects of his game that need honing….

          1. I was just relaying the information, and I didn’t take your comment to imply he wasn’t. Apologies….

    2. I’m thinking Lemonade has grown some as a player and will be OK. He’s not Aldon; who is? Sure, we’ll watch and Denver will be a test, but the coaches play summer so ‘straight’ that Over Reaction Monday will be as marginally relevant as usual.
      Also a key Who Steps Up? question is at NG. What happens there influences and determines what happens with the ILBs. But why bring that up? Heck, we haven’t seen an
      example of that since…..uh…a couple of Thursdays ago.

      1. I’m hoping Corey developed some new rush moves. He could be playing it vanilla, mainly working on weaknesses and honing his technique.

  4. Players matter. Aldon and Bowman have HOF talent. This season will be a major test for the 2013 draft class. It will be a bumpy ride till we get at least one of them back.

    Lemonier can (occasionally) blow by defenders with his quick first step, but gets tied up by O-linemen if that doesn’t work. Did he add a few pass rush moves over the offseason? I think there are pass rush work arounds Fang can employ…
    – Zone Blitzes. Corey has nice all around OLB abilities. Fang has praised his coverage skills. He could develop into another Haralson (or even a Brooks?). I could see zone blitzing Ward/Borland while the versatile Lemonier drops back.
    – Match-ups. Mix and match Lemonier and Skuta. Move Lemonier over O-linemen that struggle vs first steps. (basically the opponents “Chilo”)
    – Secret weapon Lynch?
    – Move Tank outside in pass rush situations?

  5. Grant,
    Assuming Kaepernick can carry over his strong camp into the regular season and the offense as a whole becomes more effective in certain areas (pass game, red zone, and 3rd down), do you think the team can get by, even if the defense does revert back to being somewhat mediocre?

  6. I don’t think it’s possible to “replace” Aldon Smith. Not at least with one guy. This is why I see Fangio replacing Smith’s production by committee and scheme. More Skuta, Lynch, Lemonier in rotation. I also see more blitzing coming from corners, safeties and the inside linebackers.
    The defense might not be better than 2010, but it will be younger, more durable and sustainable come late January.

  7. Gee , what else changed in 2011. I wonder if Harbaugh and Fangio had anything to do with the success of the niners D.

    I am concerned about ward and his ability to cover the slot. He will face welker this week and again in the regular season along with Percy Harvin 2 x, Tavon Austin 2 x, Brandin cooks , J Maclin …

    I am not concerned about CLemonaire. I think he will be fine.

  8. Eli Manning 1/7 running vanilla plays. Looks like they’ll pick up right where they left off.

  9. Clowney might be the real deal. I saw a lot of uncontested plays but that seemed to do a lot with him being able to simply move faster then the OL around him. Thank god the Texans have no offense cause he’ll make that defense tough to play.

      1. Scooter, wasn’t one of the OL that the Niner drafted this year played well against Clowney?

  10. JMartinez: You are way out of line, troll. Care to offer your own thoughts about football without resorting to insults? I didn’t think so…

  11. I think Cox performed well in the slot when Rogers was out in the playoffs against good receivers. Even if Ward isn’t ready to go early in the season we’ll be serviceable there with Cox. I think some points that favor areas of improvement are our DL back ups seem to have more of an impact than last year’s back ups getting pressure on QB’s. I do think the run game will be important to see if we have NT that can fill in for Dorsey.

    I am not sure as fans that we’ll see what the team will really be like again until the season starts. I wouldn’t imagine much playing time for defensive starters like Smithx2, McDonald, Brock, Culliver, Willis, Brooks etc. We are going to see a ton of back ups fighting for positions and not much of what the defense looks like with the starters plus Aldon’s replacement and Navarro’s sub. My concern is if Borland gets the job he can be beat covering fast RB’s and TE’s in coverage. Somebody already made the point on Grant’s last post about the run defense that its really hard to measure the success of the defense as a whole when there aren’t the starters out there to see how the subs fit into the scheme with pro bowl talent next to them.

    1. Also its interesting Grant was praising Culliver for shutting down Crabtree so he’s not terrible maybe he gets subbed out on long distance downs or safety help over the top. Even if he’s not great deep we do have other corners like Cook and Donte Johnson as well as Ackers who seem to be developing and don’t seem to get beat deep.

      I was impressed with both Johnson and Cook on deep coverages against the Ravens and we know the Raven’s are good at the deep ball.

    1. Yup, nice way to move the team down field for the winning TD.

      I especially liked the commentators play by play description: “Touchdown Teddy”
      We may hear “Touchdown Teddy” more than “Johnnie Football” this season.

      1. We may hear “Touchdown Teddy” more than “Johnnie Football” this season.

        If there’s a God.

        1. I dunno, AES ..
          in my mind .. “Johnnie Football” has “bust” written
          all over it ..
          (Heismann curse, maybe ?) ..

          This was the first time I caught Teddys performance,
          and he impressed me ..

          Claude ..
          that one made me laff

        2. I hear ya Claude, Manziel has reached the stage of over saturation.

          I may be one of a handful of people (help me God) that actually think Johnnie will have a good career when it’s all said and done.

          Good crop of rookie QB’s this year. Teddy, Johnnie, Bortles, and perhaps Derek Carr may all become starters at sometime during the season.
          And Jimmy Caroppolo will need to wait his turn in NE, but he looks better than Backup QB Ryan Mallett at the moment.

    2. Let’s see what he follows this game up with. My thoughts on this kid are that he’s destined to be a clipboard holder. A solid #2. I think he’s inconsistent.

      1. I agree Coffee. Cassel is going to be the starter until the Vikings are eliminated from the playoffs.

  12. Arguably the best pass rusher? When healthy he’s clearly the best pass rusher in the league. The only thing that is arguable is if he is one of the best to ever play the game.

    1. Not yet. He’s done very well so far, and by all accounts he’s better than ever this summer, but he needs to do even more to be considered with the likes of Reggie White, Deacon Jones, Fred Dean, Charles Haley, even that goofy delta bravo Gastineau.

  13. Reminder; You Kaepernick the Future blog fantasy league will hold it’s live draft one week from today. Draft begins at 10:30.

    1. Holy crap I can’t wait to go to my first game there. Probably wont be until next season but I bet it’ll be worth the wait.

      1. Ugh, my Broncos fan friend just texted me that he’s going to the game. I hope he gets home in time to re-inflate the tires on his car he’s not taking to the game.

    2. The 49ers missed an opportunity to even the score by installing parabola shaped wind guards (like Seattle’s “rain guards”) that “accidentally” redirect crowd noise towards the field.

      Still, its a beautiful stadium. The striping highlights how close the stands are to the field, so Levis should be loud compared to The Stick.

    1. As players Joe was far superior but in retirement Steve is the better 49er.

      1. Steve is an excellent communicator, and we hear more from him. Joe is just fine in my mind.
        Ron Lott ranks with Joe & Jerry in my view as an All-Time Niner. Period. Certainly a favorite of mine, but I’m still a bit incredulous at his pep talk to the Saints before they faced the Niners in the Play
        Offs. Dude! WTFIUWT?

        1. There was awhile there that Joe was clearly trying to distance himself from the organization.

          1. Yes C4C, I think a lot of the dynasty guys were uncomfortable during the Dark Ages. Rather than publicly criticize the team they just kept their distance. Even Steve had less to say because you couldn’t hide the stench. I recall Joe defending Alex during the Jimmy Raye Nightmare years due to the f.u. offensive scheme; or lack there of.

            1. Joe just began to become more involved and 49er friendly when he began to promote his business venture. Purely self serving and not because his attitude towards the Niner’s had actually changed.

  14. Bah. This blog is always on the negative end… The defense has too many leaders to let them slip back to ‘mediocrity’ as you put it… Not to mention an excellent coaching staff. TC and preseason is a time to try different things out. They’ll be ready as usual come game 1 against those mediocre Cowboys….

  15. Wow Grant gives no credit to Lemonier or Ward. What does Grant see every other person that knows about football doesn’t??? Just like last year we were doomed because we couldn’t get a slot corner. Grant wanted Jordan Poyer. Right who??? Once again Grant is wrong.

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