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Defense Embraces Short Turnaround

Posted Aug 27, 2012

Two preseason games in a five-day period doesn’t bother young defensive players on the San Francisco 49ers, not when many are looking to claim one of 53 coveted spots on the opening day roster.

In the case of second-year nose tackle Ian Williams, San Francisco’s Thursday night preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers can’t come soon enough.

Williams is looking to continue his strong run defense, which was a big part in the team’s second-half dominance in a recent 29-24 win over the Denver Broncos. The 49ers allowed 26 rushing yards on 10 carries in the game’s final 30 minutes with Williams, the once undrafted lineman, anchoring the defensive line.

“I thought we did a pretty good job,” said the 6-foot-1, 305-pound lineman who saw action in one regular season game as a rookie. “They didn’t score a point in the second half, so I thought that was a pretty good job by the backups.”

Williams has grown tremendously this offseason, not just in size, but in skills.

With a greater understanding of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme, Williams feels “light years” ahead of where he was last preseason as a rookie fighting to land on the 53-man roster.

“I feel so much better,” Williams said. “Weight-wise I feel better, and technique-wise I feel so much better. Just watching the starters, watching Ricky (Jean Francois) and their technique, I feel a lot better about mine.”

But it’s not just Williams who’s eager for his latest opportunity to make plays under the bright lights of the NFL’s preseason stage.

Undrafted safety Michael Thomas is one of many reserve defenders looking to make his final case for inclusion on a deep 49ers roster.

“I can’t wait to play Thursday,” said Thomas, who recorded one tackle in Sunday’s preseason win over the Broncos. “I’m glad it’s a short week. I’m glad we don’t have to wait that long.”

You can’t blame Thomas for his eagerness to play. Trailing Denver 24-10 at halftime, San Francisco’s reserve defenders held the Broncos scoreless in the second half, allowing just 83 yards and four first downs.

“It was a real good feeling,” said the 5-foot-11, 182-pound safety who also lines up as a reserve nickel corner. “First, you’re getting positive feedback from the coaches, both Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and Coach Fangio. Having given up that many yards and no points that was cool, but also its confidence for yourself that you can make plays on this level."

Thomas has the benefit of already playing for a Fangio-coached defense when the esteemed coordinator coached one season at Stanford under Harbaugh’s staff in 2010.

However, the young safety doesn’t overuse his knowledge of the scheme. He plays it the way he’s been coached.

“It’s about doing what the coaches ask me to do and showing them that I know what I’m doing,” Thomas shared. “But at the same time, I’m really trying to make a play, that’s it. You want to make a play to stand out on film for this team and whatever happens, happens.”

So does Thomas have to be extra careful on not being too aggressive when trying to strengthen his chances of making the team.

“You can’t play outside of the scheme-work of the defense,” Thomas said. “When guys do that, that’s when they get in trouble and you definitely can’t have a play made on you.

“I’ll play more aggressive, but still within the scheme of the defense.”

Fangio, the respected defensive coordinator, said he wasn’t ready to push the panic button after his starters spotted Denver a 17-0 lead after the first quarter.

“We didn’t play well enough on certain plays,” Fangio said. “It was a good learning experience."

So while the 49ers defense struggled at times against the Broncos and occasionally was defeated in one-on-one matchups according to Fangio, there’s still time to improve before the Sept. 9 regular season opener in Green Bay. After all, Fangio did say the 49ers didn’t alert players on Denver’s offense like they would in the regular season.

“This is still a great time to learn, perfect your craft, excel on your technique” Fangio said. “We have to be able to do that… It’s important we learn from mistakes.”

The defensive coordinator didn’t divulge how long his defensive starters would play Thursday night against the Chargers, but did say it would be on an “individual” basis.

Fangio said team MVP Justin Smith “looked ready to go,” based on his performance in Denver.

Behind Smith, the 49ers have to make tough decisions on the remaining roster spots.

On Monday, the 49ers released 12 players to get down to the 75-man roster limit, five of which were members of the defense.

“At this time of the camp you have to let some guys go and sometimes we don’t want to,” Fangio said, before pointing out that released players could be brought back to the team’s eight-man practice squad which will be announced Saturday.For hungry players like Thomas who are eager to make the club as undrafted rookies, seeing teammates move on was a difficult thing to witness, but also served as greater motivation.

“It got real today,” Thomas said. “You saw guys cleaning out their lockers; it was definitely a wakeup call. There’s more of a sense of urgency, like, ‘Guys, we got at least one more week to be here and try to be a part of this organization.’

“This is it – you’ve got to make the most of this opportunity.”

Williams feels the same way. All he can control is his effort throughout the week and on gameday.

“You can’t worry about it,” Williams said. “You have to go play your hardest. At the end of the day, you want to know as a man that you gave it your all. I’m looking forward to it. We’re getting towards the end of preseason and I know my reps will be more limited in the regular season, so I want to maximize as much of the playing as I can on Thursday.”

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