Hey Bolts Fans! Welcome to the second article in this series. Last week (in the defensive backs article) I laid out several reasons why I think the DBs will be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. Someone in the comments suggested that it would be considerably harder to make that case for the linebackers. Well, since I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge, here goes!
Who they were:
The 2012 linebacking core wasn’t too bad, all things considered. They were solid against the run, finishing 6th in the league in yards allowed. Donald Butler began to emerge as a star, and an anchor for this crew going forward, and Shaun Phillips led the team in sacks—falling a half-sack short of double digits. Obviously, the rest of the defense had a lot to do with the success against the run, but the linebackers deserve at least half of the praise.
Now for the bad stuff. In my opinion, if your safety is the leading tackler on your team then there’s something wrong. Now, our free safety happens to be one of the best in the league—so I’m willing to give the guys up front the benefit of the doubt—but our next two leading tacklers in 2012 were our starting cornerbacks (solo tackles). If you look at the Steelers stats, Timmons and Foote are the leading tacklers; For the 49ers, it’s Willis and Bowman and so on. Butler will be our tackling machine in the future, I’m sure, but this was a big red flag for me last year.
When it comes to our pass defense in 2012, Sean Phillips did a great job getting to the QB. He is one of my favorite Chargers of the past decade and will be sorely missed. After Phillips we have Butler and Barnes (with 3 sacks each) and after that there’s not much of anything going on. Surprisingly, we had the exact same number of team sacks as the 49ers last year (38, despite Aldon Smith going off) and one more than the champion Ravens. All I can say is that Coach Pagano did a heck of a lot better job applying pressure than Manusky did a year previous.
My biggest problem with the backers last year, however, was speed. Spikes had definitely lost a step and Johnson looked slow and overpowered at times—but we signed him to set the edge and stop the run, I guess. The whole unit looked slow in coverage and, with the exception of Butler, our age began to show.
Why they will be better:
Now back to the positive stuff again!
MLB: Donald Butler is a stud and will continue to get better. He has the experience, he has the talent and I’m excited to see how he will elevate his game, as well as his teammates’. Speaking of which, we have a new guy lining up beside him. Don’t know if any of you have heard anything about this Manti Te’o? He has the chance to be a star and prove everyone who doubted him wrong. Coaches are praising his work ethic and football knowledge, and he has one heck of a chip on his shoulder. This could be one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL for years to come and, despite Spike’s epic career, Te’o brings a much-needed injection of youth into this duo. The middle will undoubtedly be stronger this year.
OLB: Melvin Ingram tearing his ACL was a big blow; can’t put a positive spin on that one. When I saw that headline, my first thought was “here we go again.” However, all Tom Telesco did was go out and get one of the best pass rushers in NFL history to replace him. Is he getting up there in age? Sure, but isn’t Shaun Phillips? Did he under perform last season? Sure, but was it his first year playing linebacker after 11 years of doing the same thing (dominating quarterbacks)? I think that if we use him right, and if all the pieces fall together, he can have just as much of an impact as SP95 and be a great emergency replacement for Ingram. Plus, we have him for 2 years. So, if he has a resurgence this season, imagine Freeney and Ingram coming off the edge in 2014!
On the other side we have Jarret Johnson. Yeah, he wasn’t great in 2012. He certainly can’t rush, that’s for sure. But again, with only one year in a new system I’m willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. He certainly can’t be worse than last year’s starter…Jarret Johnson.
DEPTH: We lost a lot of veterans this offseason, true, but maybe it was simply a changing of the guard. We still have a heavy veteran presence in Freeney and Johnson but have added some youth to backup roles. DJ Smith is an under-the-radar signing that could really pay off. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that Green Bay gave up on him so fast. He has struggled with injuries in his first couple of seasons but he has the talent to be a very solid rotational player in the middle. Smith has the potential to be better than any one of our reserve middle linebackers from last year. Add the competition for the second reserve spot (guys like Mouton, Bird and Gachkar) and I see a definite improvement in depth at MLB.
At outside backer it’s a little shakier, but having a guy like Freeney there to teach some of the younger guys can only be a positive thing. Although Ingram will be watching from the sideline this season, he can still learn from Freeney; he may even be better for it. This is also a contract year for the ever-unreliable Larry English. It’s time for him to step up or he’ll be gone. Who knows, maybe that will light a fire under him and he will surprise us. We’ll also get the chance to see what Tourek Williams brings to the table. He’s not going to be as reliable as Barnes but, who knows, maybe he’ll provide a pass-rushing spark for us off the bench.
COACHING: Pagano gets a chance to build on last year. If the defense takes the same step forward as it did in 2012 then we will be in good shape. And remember, the linebackers are Pagano’s guys. They’ve traditionally been the star unit in our great defenses of the past—a couple of which Pagano has been involved with. These guys will be under more scrutiny than anyone else and they will get better!
So there you have it. In my opinion MLB has improved at both our starting positions and with depth. The OLB spots are a little shakier at this point but are at least as good as last year, and some of them may show up and surprise us. Overall, I’m excited about the future of this unit.
A little long but, as I said at the start, this group is harder to make an argument for. Remember that this is supposed to be a best-case scenario, positive-outlook sort of approach. Hopefully I did a decent job of making a case for them, if not I’ll try better with the next group! Let me know what you all think and have a happy 4th!