The name change might be overshadowing the on-field product.
Most of what’s been written about the 49ers safety has been about his name and not his play on the field.
Whitner, an eighth-year pro, has 32 tackles, five pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble through the first 6 weeks of the 2013 season. In comparison, Whitner had 27 tackles, one pass breakup, one forced fumble and no interceptions in the opening six games of the 2012 season.
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“I think he’s played even better than he had last year when he made the Pro Bowl,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. “He’s still tackling very well. He’s running our operation back there… He’s just playing with a lot more confidence. And he’s playing a little bit faster.”
Fangio credited Whitner’s knowledge of San Francisco’s defense as a key factor in his steady play in 2013.
“He’s having a lot of fun and he’s kind of become a leader of the secondary, and a leader on the team,” Fangio added.
Whitner takes accountability for his play, too. When Larry Fitzgerald broke one of his tackles to score a 75-yard touchdown in Sunday's 49ers win over the Arizona Cardinals, Whitner apologized for his role in the touchdown.
Whitner has also been instrumental in the development of rookie free safety
The 49ers safeties have played well in tandem and have combined to force three of the team’s 10 takeaways in the past three weeks. Reid also added a fumble recovery in the victory over the Cardinals.
“You love seeing your defense generate turnovers, be opportunistic,” Jim Harbaugh said on Monday. “And the safety play, when they’re getting involved in the turnovers, that’s been something in the past has been very good for us.”
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The 49ers coach applauded Whitner’s mentorship of Reid, the team’s No. 18 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Harbaugh called Whitner “the catalyst” of the communication in the back end of San Francisco’s defense.
The 49ers safety has continued to set a physical tone on defense and is confident the unit has returned to its brand of football. Besides forcing 10 turnovers in the last three games, the 49ers have allowed an average of 11.3 points per game.
San Francisco now ranks as the NFL’s No. 9 scoring defense, allowing 19.7 points per game.