The 49ers defense was gashed by the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens the last two games it was on the field and has lost standout safety Dashon Goldson, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and key backup defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois this offseason.
Yet as safety Donte Whitner looks toward the start of the 2013 season, he’s confident the Niners can make another run at a Super Bowl title because of that defense.
“We feel like we’re the best defense in the NFL,” Whitner said Friday on the NFL Network’s “NFL AM” show. “We have pass rushers. We have a tremendous front seven. Two of the best, if not the two best, inside linebackers in the NFL.”
Whitner acknowledged the San Francisco defense showed its deficiencies late in the season, particularly on pass defense. After the injury to defensive end Justin Smith took away some of his effectiveness, the Niners pass rush wasn’t the same force it was earlier in the season. And, it wasn’t revealed until after the season that linebacker Aldon Smith – who had been leading the league in sacks -- was playing with an injury and didn’t have a sack for the final six games of the 2012 season, through the Super Bowl.
Without a strong pass rush, the Niners’ secondary gave up big yardage to quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in its final two games.
“We have guys out there in the secondary that (are) relying on the guys in the front seven,” Whitner said. “Your secondary is only going to be as good as your pressure is. We have a good front seven, so we’ll be pretty good.”
Since the end of the season, the 49ers have signed Glenn Dorsey, formerly of the Chiefs, to play Sopoaga’s position, and may get more help in the draft. In addition, they’ve added former Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and safety Craig Dahl and are expected to go for a safety high in the draft.
The 49ers during the regular season were No. 2 in the league in scoring defense, allowing 17.1 points per game (behind NFC rival Seattle, which allowed just 15.3 points per game) and ranked No. 3 in the league in yards allowed per game (294.4). In three postseason games, the 49ers gave up 29.7 points and 398.7 yards per game.
Whitner says he and his teammates remain extremely motivated to win a Super Bowl. After getting to the NFC Championship Game and losing to the Giants in overtime at the end of the 2011 season and then reaching the Super Bowl and losing to the Ravens, the Niners are hungry, he says.
“I think that’s our main motivation,” he said. “I think we had a great opportunity to win that game. Me personally, I took two weeks off and have been training ever since. Kaep (Colin Kaepernick) took one week off. …
“We understand it’s going to take small steps to get to where we want to go. We had a taste of it the last two years. The third year is the charm.”