The San Francisco 49ers should add fresh talent to their defense after the much-vaunted unit struggled in the playoffs. It's very rare that the 49ers defense merits criticism. However, their performances against the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens rate as cause for concern.
In particular, in the first half of both the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, the Niners' defense was toyed with. A unit that prides itself on being stingy in allowing points appeared to be giving scores away against the Falcons and Ravens.
Just as surprising was that most of the problems came against the pass. This is, after all, a defense built on an accomplished, opportunistic secondary.
Free safety Dashon Goldson is one of the big prizes in 2013's free-agent market. However, his stock will certainly have tumbled in the eyes of anyone who saw him routinely victimized by the deep ball in the postseason.
As easy as it is to blame the defensive backfield, the lack of a credible pass rush certainly didn't help. These issues were obvious and nothing any 49ers fan didn't already know.
So how can Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio fix this problem before next season?
Solving the issue of rotation has to be the key first step. The 49ers play the same starters for all three downs for the majority of every game. While this may seem logical, when the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the starters, it clearly wears down the defense.
The only way to avoid a repeat of this pattern is to improve depth. The defensive line should not have suffered as much as it did when Justin Smith suffered injury in Week 15. Ricky Jean-Francois is a solid but not dynamic reserve.
A similar issue is present at nose tackle. Isaac Sopoaga is a fine run-stuffer but has become limited to exactly that. Fangio needs a more disruptive presence along the interior to ease the pressure on Smith to provide the push in the middle.
That would also help with the pressure on the edge. As dominant as he has been, 49ers fans and coaches have to be concerned by how much Aldon Smith slowed down this season.
Failing to register a sack since Week 15 is unacceptable for the team's primary 3-4 outside pass-rusher. It was easy to look at Smith and wonder if he would be better suited to the situational role he occupied as a rookie.
Though that means less snaps, it would also mean a fresher pass-rusher for the long haul. Smith's knack for pressuring the passer is a priceless commodity and needs protecting.
There's also the point that the 49ers defense might benefit from having four true linebackers. That's especially true after watching Smith continually fail to contain the run in the Super Bowl.
Yet there's that same problem of depth again. Behind starters Smith and Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers only really have Clark Haggans and Parys Haralson in reserve.
Drafting to a strength might not be something the 49ers are comfortable with. However, adding another quality outside linebacker is something they should seriously consider come April.
They will still feel comfortable letting Bowman and Willis lead the charge from the inside. Although it's hard not to believe they could have benefited from splitting time with Larry Grant, similar to last season.
The 49ers have $3.9 million in cap space, according to John Clayton of ESPN.com. Free agency presents them with credible options.
However, addressing the paucity of depth up front and improving the average pass rush should be the priorities. If they let free agents Sopoaga and Jean-Francois walk, Randy Starks or Alan Branch could give the line rotation the boost it needs.
Drafting 31st will likely thin the options. Linemen like Sheldon Richardson and Jesse Williams may be well out of reach. Although an outside linebacker such as Texas A&M's Alex Okafor could be a very useful pick.
What is clear is that the defense that worked so well for the 49ers for nearly two years needs fresh talent. After requiring fine-tuning on offense at the end of last season, the 49ers finish this campaign needing some tweaking to their defense to mount another title challenge in 2013.
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