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49ers camp report: Stout defense returns in full strength for San Fran

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Patrick Willis (52): 'We have to be a great defense. Because good will get you beat.' (Getty Images)  
Patrick Willis (52): 'We have to be a great defense. Because good will get you beat.' (Getty Images)  

SANTA CLARA, Cal. -- The San Francisco 49ers are a trendy pick for this year's Super Bowl, and I'll tell you why in one word.

Defense.

The 49ers have it. They hit hard, they force mistakes and they rarely give ground -- especially vs. the run. Not only did they rank first in run defense last season; they allowed only three rushing touchdowns, the fewest in league history since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

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Good, huh? It gets better. Every starter is back from that unit, and if there's one lesson we learned from last year's playoffs it's that defenses still win championships.

"I really think our defense is as good as it was last year," said linebacker Patrick Willis. "That doesn't mean we're not going to go out there and not have a mistake. But, at the end of the day, our main goal is to be consistent at being a good defense and a dominating defense. I don't want to say 'good;' we have to be a great defense. Because good will get you beat."

But it wasn't the 49ers' defense that got the club beaten last year. It was a pair of muffed punt returns. If the 49ers don't make them they're in the Super Bowl; not the New York Giants.

Of course, that didn't happen, but with a new year come new expectations -- and look at the preseason favorites. Las Vegas sports books make them one of the favorites for Super Bowl XLVII, ahead of the defending champion New York Giants.

"We have a lot of guys who are hungry," said tight end Vernon Davis. "We've been through a lot here ... especially me ... and I can't afford to sit around here and watch me and my teammates lose."

He may not have to.

Team objectives

  Keep winning the turnover battle. Nobody was better than San Francisco in 2011, and don't tell me that wasn't a factor in the 49ers' success. It was. The 49ers committed only 10 turnovers, the fewest in the NFL. Now, compare that with their 23 the previous season, and you have an idea why they emerged out of nowhere. At front and center is quarterback Alex Smith, who had a career-low five interceptions in 18 starts, including two playoff games. The 49ers' defense hits hard and forces mistakes -- something New Orleans discovered early in its playoff loss. But it's the offense's ability to protect the ball that will play a pivotal role in what happens next with these guys.

  Find a wide receiver to stretch the defense. Look at last year's results. Nobody on this team with more than 15 catches averaged more than 12.1 yards per catch. Of course, that's how you limit your turnovers. You make safe throws and don't take chances. But that caught up to San Francisco in the NFC championship game when there was only one catch by a wide receiver (Michael Crabtree) -- and that for only 3 yards. Saying the 49ers need help at that position is a little like saying L.A. needs a pro football stadium. I mean ... duh. So the 49ers brought in Randy Moss, signed Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham and drafted A.J. Jenkins and hope that someone, anyone, emerges as a threat to take the heat off tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

  Protect the quarterback. I don't care what you think of Alex Smith; he proved last season that he could take this team deep into the playoffs. Smith was extraordinarily accurate, throwing just five interceptions, and that's remarkable considering his protection was less than perfect. In fact, four times last season he was sacked five or more times in a game -- including nine times in a Thanksgiving loss to Baltimore -- and the 49ers were 1-3 in those contests. I think you get the idea: Protect Smith, and you increase your chances of going far.

Camp battles

Right guard: When starter Adam Snyder left for Arizona, the 49ers plugged Alex Boone into his spot, and look for him to hold on to it. At 6-feet-8, the former backup tackle is taller than most guards, but he seems to be making the transition from one position to another without much trouble. Nevertheless, the club signed Leonard Davis as his understudy. The 49ers say the position isn't settled, but Boone would have to take a big step backward for Davis to replace him. Projected winner: Boone

Second wide receiver: Michael Crabtree is the holdover here and led the team in catches last season, so he's a slam dunk to start at one position. But who starts at the other? Veteran Randy Moss has the credentials, but he's a 35-year-old who didn't play last season and, when he did play in 2010, wasn't effective. Then there's Mario Manningham, signed as a free agent to pump up this position. And let's not forget about rookie A.J. Jenkins, whom the 49ers drafted with their first pick. It's wide open, but Moss would seem to have the inside track. He's proven, and the 49ers insist he will force defenses to change the way they attack San Francisco. Projected winner: Manningham, although the Niners believe Moss in the red zone target and deep threat they've been missing.

Backup quarterback: It's Colin Kaepernick vs. Josh Johnson, and let's be honest: The 49ers drafted Kaepernick a year ago with the idea that he would supplant Alex Smith. He didn't. Then they went out and signed Johnson, who played for Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, and there's the appearance of a quarterback battle ... though there's really not. But that's how it goes with a club where there really are no positions up for grabs. Projected winner: Kaepernick. The 49ers didn't move up in the draft to have him carry Josh Johnson's clipboard. He was seen as a potential starter.

Somebody to watch

Wide receiver Randy Moss. He could be an asset, or he could be the guy who helped blow up the Minnesota Vikings two seasons ago. People in and around the 49ers tell me he's an asset, but let's see what happens. As a star receiver in the league told me, Moss is one of the "great frontrunners," a plus if you're winning and a disaster if you're not. A head coach I know agreed, but said there's another element that needs to be addressed. "What happens," he said, "when they're winning in San Francisco and he has, oh, say, one or two catches a game?" I dunno. I give up. "He'll go crazy," he said, answering his own question. That's why he's somebody to watch.

Injury roundup

 Running back Brandon Jacobs suffered a left knee injury in last week's loss to Houston, but he did not suffer structural damage. There is no timetable for his return, though no one has ruled him out of the season opener in Green Bay.

 Rookie running back LaMichael James seems to be OK after an ankle injury, also sustained in last weekend's loss to Houston.

 Linebacker Aldon Smith, who suffered a hip pointer Aug. 10, returned to practiced this week but still appears handicapped and isn't running effectively.

 Linebacker Ahmad Brooks returned to practice Monday from a left knee injury.

 Tight end Delanie Walker returned to practice Monday from a right knee injury.

The final word

There doesn't seem to be much on the roster to hold the 49ers back. Their defense returns intact. Their offense barely changed. Their quarterback is back. They added depth at wide receiver and running back. In short, they appear to be loaded.

Nevertheless, there are potential speed bumps.

First of all, there's the schedule. Three of their first four games are on the road -- including Green Bay and the New York Jets -- and they meet three playoff teams in their first six starts. One of those games is against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, though the 49ers draw them at home.

Then there's Randy Moss. The 49ers roll the dice by putting him in the same locker room with Michael Crabtree, and, yeah, I think it's a gamble. I've seen the impact he can have on teammates, though the 49ers seem delighted with his behavior on and off the field.

Of course, they haven't played a game that matters yet.

Last, there's the team's confidence. You want your ballclub to feel good about itself, and this one does. However, I know some people who think it could feel too good about itself, and that it still has offensive shortcomings (pass protection?) that need to be addressed. Furthermore, where the 49ers gained that signature victory over Philadelphia a year ago, there are people out there who believe they may need an early loss to keep its high-flying players from losing perspective.

Maybe. All I know is that this team should be superior to the one we watched last season. That doesn't mean it wins another 13 games. It probably won't. But it does mean it's stronger, which is bad news for the rest of the NFC.

"Our main focus and goal," said Willis, "is to get into the playoffs and get home-field advantage. I don't think we're thinking we've got to go 13-3, or it's going to be a bust. For us, it's getting back to the playoffs. That's what you call consistency, and there's only one way to do that: Win games during the regular season and win games that count."

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