The 49ers secondary expects to finish the season as one of the best passing defenses in the NFL. But to be the best, they've got to stop the best.
The unit gets that opportunity this Sunday when they travel to play New Orleans, a team that just so happens to boast the NFL's top rated passing offense.
"We know they are ranked number one so the secondary has our work cut out for us this week," said safety Dashon Goldson. "You have to beat the best to be the best and that's our goal – to be the best secondary in the NFL. We come out here every day and work hard to get there so that no matter who we face, we can dominate."
The 49ers have already faced three top quarterbacks this season in Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck and Jon Kitna, and managed to hold all three to under 200 passing yards. But, this weekend they'll get a dose the NFL's leading passer in quarterback Drew Brees, whose 400-plus passing yard day against the Broncos last week helped move him to the top of the charts.
Veteran cornerback Walt Harris – the most tenured player on the 49ers defense - has a great deal of respect for the Saints veteran passer.
"I think at this point in Drew's career, he's studied the game, he's been around a lot," said Harris. "He's a very poised quarterback and definitely understands the system that Sean Payton has put him under."
Brees has been without his leading receiver from a year ago in Marques Colston since week one, and will now have to play without the assistance of tight end Jeremy Shockey. But Brees is still one of the best in the business in finding an open man, and he's still got his leading receiver in versatile running back Reggie Bush, who is tied for second in the NFC for third down receptions.
"He's a very potent type of running back. He brings a lot to the table. He's the kind of guy, who can run in the backfield, line up at the wide receiver spot and catch some balls," said Harris. "I think he's a very elusive type of running back. He also has great hands and I think he really understands the position as far as running routes."
Two years ago, Bush shredded the 49ers defense with three rushing touchdowns and 131 receiving yards. Last year, the defense did a much better job keeping Bush in check with no touchdowns, 64 yards rushing and 49 yards receiving, but the attention the electrifying player drew allowed other players to get open for a big day.
That's something Nate Clements, who starts opposite Harris, said the unit can't allow.
"The one thing about their head coach Sean Payton, he's going to run his offense no matter who is in there," said Clements. "We have to still be prepared and be ready to play consistent defense because they still have Robert Meachem, David Patten, Lance Moore, and Devery Henderson. Henderson is probably their most serious deep threat, but Patten still has wheels and can get down the field. Those guys can definitely take us deep and stretch the defense."
Defenders like Clements and Harris will use the lessons learned from last year's game to their advantage, but the 49ers cornerback tandem also believes the 49ers are playing a new brand of 49ers football.
"We look at our first two games last year that we did win; we could have easily lost them," said Harris of the 49ers last second wins over Arizona and St. Louis. "I think this year we have some games under our belt that we feel like we deserved those wins more convincingly than last year. Like I said, we're a lot more of a polished group, very confident and I think we're a little better than last year at taking each game at a time."
Similar to the Saints injury woes, the 49ers have their own concerns in the secondary. Safety Michael Lewis (elbow strain) and Goldson (shoulder) were both limited in practice on Thursday after suffering injuries in the Detroit game. Cornerback Donald Strickland missed last week's game with a knee injury and is also still being limited in practice, while safety Keith Lewis, who primarily plays special teams, has missed the last two days with a knee sprain.
Despite the injury bug, Harris believes the backend will pull through on Sunday.
"Being around each other a lot and being in the game for awhile and practicing with each other for awhile, you kind of understand guys' strengths and weaknesses," said Harris of the 49ers tight knit secondary. "And we kind of play off each other a lot. It's kind of like a quarterback and a wide receiver being together for a long time, you kind of know what each other is going to do and where everyone is going to be at."
**On the Prowl for Picks
**49ers cornerback Nate Clements enters week four still looking for his first interception of the season.
During last Friday's practice, Clements dropped two would-be picks in the final team session, enough to send him straight to the team's masseuse for a hand massage. But in the Detroit game, his hands weren't the problem.
A tipped ball by Calvin Johnson skimmed across the top of Clements' helmet, and the cornerback failed to locate the ball before it hit the ground.
"Man, I watched the film of it but I didn't have a chance really. That ball went right across my helmet, and it had some heat on it."
Just to be sure his hands were in working order this week, Clements spent Tuesday afternoon catching 540 balls from the Jugs machine. He then caught another five consecutive balls to make up for the five that he missed out of the original 540.
**More on the Injury Front
**Head coach Mike Nolan indicated that both Keith and Michael Lewis would be gametime decisions, as well as receiver Bryant Johnson, who missed the last two days of practice with a tight hamstring.