By Jerry McDonald, The Oakland Tribune –
About the only thing more impressive than the play of the 49ers’ secondary this year is how San Francisco played the market in putting it together.
The unit came into the national consciousness during a 36-32 divisional playoff win Saturday over the New Orleans Saints — despite giving up 462 yards passing to Drew Brees — by forcing three turnovers and making a number of swift and jarring hits.
It will be tested again Sunday in the NFC Championship game, with the New York Giants coming to Candlestick Park with the explosive threesome of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham at wide receiver.
“Nicks can make any catch, run any route. Cruz is trouble in the slot, a real quick guy, and Manningham is a deep threat down the middle,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “They all possess a different challenge, and it seems like they’re getting better every week we’ve seen them play.”
The same could be said for a 49ers secondary that had interceptions from free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Tarell Brown against Brees and a forced fumble near the goal line by strong safety Donte Whitner against running back Pierre Thomas.
During the regular season, the 49ers were tied for second in the NFL with 23 interceptions, 22 of them coming from defensive backs. Rogers and Goldson had six each and made the Pro Bowl. Whitner, who had two, was an alternate.
When the NFL lockout ended, all three were on the open market, looking for the highest bidder as unrestricted free agents. During a six-day period in August, all three signed with the 49ers.
Rogers, who intercepted eight passes in six seasons with the Washington Redskins, couldn’t find a long-term deal and signed with San Francisco for one year and $4.25 million on Aug. 3.
Whitner, looking to cash in as one of the top safeties on the market, got a $2.5 million signing bonus in a three-year deal worth $11.25 million on Aug. 6.
Goldson, disappointed with the 49ers’ opening offer, ended up signing for one year and $2 million.
CBS analyst and former NFL general manager Charley Casserly lauded the way the 49ers and general manager Trent Baalke handled a free-agent period that was compacted because of the lockout.
“What San Francisco did was smart. They sat back, identified players, and kept in touch,” Casserly said. “When the market fell to a point where it made sense to them, they pulled the trigger.’’
The 49ers also elevated fifth-year cornerback Tarell Brown to a starter, relegating eight-year veteran Shawntae Spencer to the bench, and drafted cornerback Chris Culliver out of South Carolina in the third round.
The group has benefited from a stellar pass rush that produced 42 sacks (tied for seventh in the NFL), including 14 from rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith and 7 1/2 plus a constant push from defensive lineman Justin Smith, reducing the amount of time the quarterback has to make a decision.
Considering the lack of an offseason and having been thrown together to learn a new defensive scheme, the makeshift secondary has exceeded all expectations except possibly its own.
Rogers believes being willing to work together, listen and communicate to play as one makes a big difference. He remembers well his time with the Redskins, who had a number of big-name players but not the same results.
“I’ve been on a team with a bunch of first-round draft picks — Sean Taylor, LaRon Landry, DeAngelo Hall, Shawn Springs — and I haven’t had this much success in my career,” said Rogers, whom the Redskins selected with the ninth pick of the 2005 draft. “It’s about putting games together, making the best plays and your coaches putting you in a situation to win.”
Former Raiders and Browns front office executive Mike Lombardi, an NFL Network analyst, thinks the 49ers were cognizant of getting the right players and not just the right price.
“I think you can control who you put in your locker room, and if you put a lot of good guys in your locker room that value winning over anything else, you have a great locker room,” Lombardi said. “They’ve got a lot of people that understand winning that are able to focus and execute, and (defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio has done a great job of getting them ready to play.”
The 49ers will need to summon all their skill against a Giants team led by Nicks, who has 13 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns in two playoff games. Cruz has seven receptions for 102 yards and Manningham seven catches for 99 yards and two scores.
When the two teams met in San Francisco on Nov. 13, Manningham caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eli Manning against Culliver and Nicks had a 32-yard touchdown against Brown, but Rogers intercepted two passes in the 49ers’ 27-20 victory.
The 49ers were fortunate that when leading 27-20 late in the fourth quarter, a would-be 42-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Manningham glanced off the receiver’s fingertips with Culliver trailing.
Whitner took particular notice of a 66-yard touchdown catch Sunday against the Green Bay Packers by Nicks, who bounced off would-be tackler Charlie Peprah just past midfield and raced in for the score.
Both Whitner and Goldson like taking the big hit, and there might be times when wrapping up would be the better option.
“If the guy is clearly seeing you, and has an opportunity to catch it and make a move, you can’t really take a kill shot,” Whitner said. “It’s hard to gauge. You have to do it in a split-second. Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you don’t.”