San Jose Mercury

Carefully constructed defense proves to be a house of cards
January 13, 2003
By Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist

TAMPA, Fla. - Fortified with draft choices, blessed with great chemistry, forged for the long haul, built to beat the St. Louis Rams . . . and torched in the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

Something did not compute during Tampa Bay's 31-6 demolition Sunday. Something was screwy and disturbing about the whole sunny Florida day.

Something went terribly wrong for the 49ers' defense, which, after much cautious planning and careful harvesting, suddenly seemed exceedingly exposed and decidedly unworthy of deep playoff advancement.

Because you can get scorched by Brett Favre or Donovan McNabb or even Kerry Collins (as long as you score 25 points in the last 20 minutes), and you suck it up and move on.

But Brad Johnson, Joe Jurevicius and Mike Alstott? In January? Scoring 31 points? Setting a Tampa Bay single-game playoff scoring record . . . by halftime?

As Vince Lombardi might say: Bummer. Or as he really might say: Can't anybody make a %$#%&& play on defense out there?

It does not matter that the unit was down to Cornerback No. 6, Safety No. 4, Missed Tackle No. 208 and Jurevicius Big Play No. 14.

It does not matter that the 49ers' defense had almost every excuse in the NFL handbook: Hurt. Young. Hurt again. Off-rhythm. Hurt. Zero help from Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and the 49ers' offense. Look how hurt!

Here's what matters: It was Tampa Bay, which averaged 10 points per playoff game in its history. Every team in the playoffs has injuries, including the Bucs, who were without All-Pro-caliber defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Good defenses make do. Just ask Garcia.

And consider this: In this wild, strange, salary-cap-buffeted league, the 49ers' defensive core is relatively mature.

``We're not young,'' 10-year defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said, shaking his head. ``We're not young.''

The 49ers have been patient and have drafted intelligently. But it was clear from the middle of the first quarter that the defense lacks playoff sizzle, the kind of ferocity the two remaining NFC teams have in bundles.

The 49ers need a Terrell Owens-style playmaker on defense. They need their own version of Derrick Brooks or John Lynch; Rod Woodson or Bill Romanowski; Ronnie Lott or Charles Haley. Someone who changes the feel of a game, who gobbles up deflected passes, who makes sure the Bucs never, ever put up 28 points in one half.

Andre Carter isn't it, at least not yet. Jamie Winborn might be it, but he was hurt. Julian Peterson is the closest thing the 49ers have to it, but he needs help.

This defense ranked 14th in the regular season, but it looked worse against the New York Giants last week and much worse Sunday.

One play in the second quarter symbolized it: Johnson rolled left on second-and-six, felt no pressure, then casually floated a 12-yard touchdown pass to Rickey Dudley to give the Bucs a 21-6 lead.

With a less-explosive offense than in the Dynasty Era and with error-prone special teams, the 49ers need their defense to prevent those kinds of plays.

``I would disagree with that,'' cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. ``I think this defense has fought all year long and we've won ballgames all year long. And you can't do it without both sides of the ball and special teams. We were up for the challenge. It just turns out today we came up short.''

Good argument, but incorrect. Whether Steve Mariucci is still the coach and Jim Mora is still the defensive coordinator, the 49ers are not going to get through Philadelphia or Tampa Bay (or the Rams) unless that defense rises up or Steve Young comes back.

Yes, the 49ers had more than their share of injuries to key players -- Winborn, safety Zack Bronson, cornerbacks Jason Webster and Plummer (in the first quarter Sunday). But was there a moment when Mora's defense was completely healthy?

``No . . . well, the first two games,'' Mora said. ``We were ranked seventh in the NFL at that point. But after Jamie got hurt against the Redskins early, that was our third game, and then Zack got hurt, Jason. No, we were never healthy . . .

``There's no discounting the fact that we've just been decimated by injuries all year. We've never been a complete defense since the second week of the season.''

Mora, as is his nature, stuck to the positive, saying that the experience gained by the young backups will prove valuable in the future, and that his defense, given the circumstances, did well early (before the Plummer injury) and late (when it rattled Johnson on blitzes).

``We were stopping them,'' Mora said. ``The first drive, we get an interception . . . and Johnson was throwing the ball all over the place.''

But then Plummer went down. Johnson got in rhythm. And the defense built to beat the Rams ended up out of the playoffs, right next to the Rams.

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