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49ers’ defense heads to 3-4

SF drafts for big linemen who can tie up blockers, allow LBs to make tackles

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 30, 2007 at 5:14 p.m.

The talk began in Dennis Erickson’s first year as head coach. It continued in Mike Nolan’s first two seasons.

Finally, it appears the 49ers have the personnel and determination to make the transition to a 3-4 defense — joining just seven other NFL teams that run the scheme.

Although they played with a three-man line sporadically the past four seasons, the 49ers have not implemented the defense full time since the 1992 season when the ample girth of Michael Carter and Ted Washington shared playing time at nose tackle.

The 49ers started making the conversion in the first few days of free agency. They signed 320-pound nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and pass-rusher Tully Banta-Cain, who is considered too small to play conventional defensive end but is just right for outside linebacker in a 3-4.

Over the weekend, the 49ers selected six defensive players in the draft, including four who are slated to play in the front seven. The key tasks are performed by the three linemen. Their job is to tie up blockers, allowing the linebackers to roam free and make tackles.

Florida teammates Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen fit the mold coach Mike Nolan envisions for his defensive linemen. McDonald, a third-round pick, will play defensive end, while Cohen will likely be a nose tackle.

McDonald, who is 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, said he was prepared to take on the “dirty work” required of a 49ers defensive lineman.

“That’s me all day, so I don’t mind doing that,” he said.

McDonald said he was asked in college to perform two-gap duties, in which he is responsible for plugging up the holes on either side of the man blocking him.

“He’ll be asked to do maybe 15 percent (two gap), but at the same time he’s the kind of player that you really want to utilize his strengths,” Nolan said. “He’s a great leverage player because if you can’t leverage somebody — you know, get underneath them — you can’t two-gap.”

McDonald, Bryant Young, Marques Douglas, Ronald Fields, Melvin Oliver can all play defensive end, while Franklin, 315-pound Cohen and 332-pound Isaac Sopoaga can line up at nose tackle.

The 49ers selected 270-pound defender Jay Moore of Nebraska in the fourth round. Although he played defensive end in college, he will be converted to outside linebacker with the 49ers.

“I probably have to shed a couple pounds because I’m bigger than the regular outside linebacker,” Moore said. “But I think my ability to drop into coverage and rush would be a huge factor for myself.”

The team’s top overall pick, Patrick Willis of Mississippi, has played only inside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He won the Butkus Award as college football’s top linebacker as a senior. The 49ers have him slated to work at the inside position on the weakside with veteran Derek Smith.

“I’m a tough person and I’m confident. I would like to play in any defense, so just teach me how and I’ll show you,” Willis said.

Niners assistant head coach Mike Singletary said he is not concerned about Willis’ ability to adapt to an unfamiliar scheme.

“If he can play in a 4-3, he can play in a 3-4,” Singletary said. “He certainly makes our defense faster. He certainly adds speed. He gives us some versatility.”

NOTES

The 49ers reached contract agreements with undrafted rookie free agents quarterback Luke Getsy (Akron) and tight end Zac Herold (Nebraska-Omaha). At least three other rookie free agents are expected to be signed in time for the team’s minicamp this weekend. Cal linebacker Mickey Pimental is expected to try out for a roster spot.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Maiocco at 521-5492 or matt.maiocco@pressdemocrat.com

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