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49ers Defense Dialed in for Dolphins

Posted Dec 6, 2012

What comes first? Tight coverage or a good pass rush?

It’s not a riddle, but the 49ers have a bit of the chicken-and-egg relationship going with their pass defense these days. San Francisco currently ranks second in the league against the pass, allowing just 189 yards per game.

Whether the secondary or the pass-rush is more responsible for the impressive output, Vic Fangio doesn’t care. They’re both on his team.

“They go hand-in-hand,” the 49ers defensive coordinator said. “You can’t play good pass defense without a good pass rush and you can’t get a lot of production in pass rush if guys are coming open very early. So, it goes hand-in-hand.”

It’s not just the pass defense which is excelling this year under Fangio’s direction. In fact, the 49ers are the only NFL team to rank among the top three in scoring defense (first, 14.2 points per game) total defense (second, 279.6 yards per game), pass defense (second, 189) and rush defense (third, 90.6).

Fangio said he’s been pleased with his team’s ability to stay tight on receivers throughout the year. But the starting quartet in the defensive backfield could be a bit different from the norm when the 49ers take the field on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

For virtually all 30 of the games in the Jim Harbaugh era, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have joined safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson as starters in the San Francisco secondary. But that could be in jeopardy this week, as Fangio noted there’s a possibility Brown could miss Sunday’s action with a sore hamstring. Brown sat out practice Wednesday but was a limited participant on Thursday.

“We’ll just have to deal with that if that’s the case,” Fangio said. “Culliver will come in there. Perrish Cox can come in there. Tramaine Brock can come in there. We’ll be fine without (Brown). But back to your original point, yeah, it does help to have continuity.”

It’s not like Culliver is a completely fresh face getting thrown into the fire. The second-year player has size (6-foot, 199 pounds), speed and plenty of experience this year. Given the amount of pass-happy offenses the 49ers have faced, Culliver, the team’s third cornerback, has seen consistent action throughout the season.

“I feel like a starter,” Culliver said. “I’m mining.”

Culliver’s reputation throughout the league is growing as well. Following last week’s 16-13 loss at St. Louis, receiver Chris Givens gave Culliver some dap after a tough day of competing between the lines.

“That’s just part of the development as a player,” Culliver said. “You try to learn more and more and more every week, every quarter, every season. Like veterans; I’m sure a lot of people don’t come in here just balling with 10 picks. They start getting better as time goes. The more you play, the more you get better.”

The secondary’s task on Sunday will be to slow down rookie signal-caller Ryan Tannehill, who has 2,559 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year. Tannehill has yet to establish himself as a consistent game- in, game-out gunslinger, but his 431-yard effort against Arizona in Week 4 shows he’s capable of a big day.

“Well, they’ve got a talented young quarterback who’s a good athlete, runs well,” Fangio said. “He’s a scrambler, got a strong arm. I think he’s gaining more and more confidence with every game that he’s played. I think they’re a much better team now than they were earlier in the season.”

Fangio also commended the skill players on the Dolphins offense, namely running back Reggie Bush and wideout Brian Hartline. Hartline leads the team in receiving yards (807) and is tied with Davone Bess for the team lead in catches (55), even though he might not have the high profile of a No. 1 NFL receiver.

“I don’t know why he’s under the radar,” Fangio said. “He’s been impressive watching tape on him this week. He’s their leading receiver. Obviously the quarterback has a comfort level with him, too, he likes to throw to him. He’s deceivingly fast and quick and he’s got good hands, and a good route runner. This guy’s a good player.”

Meanwhile, the 49ers defensive coordinator singled out Bush’s evolution as a runner between the tackles as a big reason behind his success this season. Bush currently has 726 yards and five touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry this season, but will be facing the steamrolling San Francisco defense on Sunday.

“He’s still a threat to get outside your defense and have one of those runs where he reverses field and looks like sandlot ball there,” Fangio said. “You’ve got to be ready.”

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