Whitner Has Grip on 49ers Defense

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Maybe it's the swagger, maybe it's the toughness, or maybe it's what Joe Staley calls, "The little big man type of confidence."

Whatever it is, Donte Whitner certainly has it.

The six-year veteran safety, who's entering his second season and first full offseason with the San Francisco 49ers, remains one of the team's most self-assured players on the roster.

So when the 2011 Pro Bowl alternate talks about wanting to improve on last year's impressive defensive efforts under first-year coordinator Vic Fangio, it's hard not to take his words at face value.

"We're very excited to be back, but it's more so about being with the guys and enjoying everyone's company," said the 5-foot-10, 208-pound hard-hitting defensive back on Tuesday. "There are a lot of funny guys in this locker room and that's where the camaraderie and the team chemistry are really built in the offseason."

Whitner, donning a black and red San Francisco Giants fitted cap, looked to be enjoying his time with teammates out on the 49ers practice fields during the team's Tuesday Football School session. With receivers and defensive players taking turns running a combine-like gauntlet drill during special teams periods, Whitner had a chance to showcase his own ball skills.

Whitner was seemingly always around the ball in his first year with the 49ers. He recorded 91 tackles to go with two interceptions, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. The all-around play-making ability, plus the "little big man" confidence instantly earned him the respect of his teammates.

"Donte came in and really solidified that strong safety spot," said Willis, San Francisco's defensive captain. "I know Dashon (Goldson) must enjoy having him back there with him, I know I did."

With another season playing together and a greater understanding of Fangio's defensive scheme, Whitner believes the 49ers can do better than their first year under Fangio's watch.

"This year you can expect guys to fly around a lot faster without hesitation and really understand what the scheme is and what we're trying to do to offensive football teams," Whitner said, before sharing his biggest goal for 2012. "And I believe that we're going to be the No. 1 defense in the National Football League this year. The guys believe it and we just have to go out there, work and prove it."

It won't be easy. Not only will the 49ers face a division-champion's schedule in 2012, but improving on last year's status as the best rush defense and second-best scoring defense in the NFL won't be easy either. But as Whitner sees it, a full offseason together will only help the unit improve.

"We have to go out this year and make everything count," explained Whitner, sounding very much like a player who had just been defeated in a conference championship game. "If we can do that – playing with intentions on really beating teams and not just winning football games – I believe we'll be right back in the same spot as last year."

Having Whitner in the fold for the next two seasons will be important for the 49ers defense. Not everyone at the strong safety position like Whitner can cover opposing tight ends and support the run like a linebacker.

"He says, 'I'm not the tallest or biggest safety, but I'm going to hit like one and I'm going to play the position like one,'" Willis shared. "I know he does a heck of a job. He's just going to continue to get that much better for us."

Most people point to Whitner's hit-everything-moving performance against the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Playoffs as the veteran's best moment in a 49ers uniform, but Willis begs to differ.

"It wasn't just that game. Those guys (Whitner and Goldson) were doing it all season. No doubt for him to come out and do what he did (against New Orleans) was amazing, but they played like that all year long."

So while Willis might take more of a modest approach when it comes to setting personal and team goals, Whitner has no problem sharing his feelings on the matter.

"This is where it all starts," Whitner said looking around at the team's practice fields. "This is where you work hard together, but you have fun working hard before it gets really, really tough during training camp."

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