Seahawks vs. 49ers NFC Championship game: A scouting report on the 49ers' defense, via Niners Nation

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our short series of cross blog collaboration posts between Field Gulls and Niners Nation, here's editor/lead writer David Fucillo with a scouting report on the 49ers' defense. My questions in bold, his answers follow.

Fucillo told us about the Niners' defense yesterday, and I talked to him about the Seahawks' offense as well, so make sure you check that stuff out. Big thanks to David for the insightful answers and look for breakdowns on the two teams' defenses tomorrow.

1. What is the status of the Niners' secondary right now? I know there have been some injuries there and that former Niner-turned-Seahawk-turned-Niner Perrish Cox has been playing a pretty big role. How healthy is San Francisco going into this game at that spot?

The only notable injury in the secondary is cornerback Carlos Rogers. He suffered a hamstring strain on the final defensive series of the 49ers Week 17 win over the Cardinals. He did not practice the last two weeks, and sat out both the Wild Card and Divisional round games. He was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday, and has said he is on track to play Sunday. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he needed to get on the practice field if he was going to play, so this is a big step. It is worth noting that Rogers said at one point last week that if he injured it again, he'd likely be done for the year. Given the importance of just getting to the Super Bowl, my guess is he goes all out and hopes for the best on Sunday.

If he does not play, Perrish Cox would get the start as the nickel back. If Rogers does play, as I am expecting right now, Cox would likely be the dime back. The 49ers originally released Cox to make room for Eric Wright. The 49ers used Wright as the dime back, and nickel when Tarell Brown got hurt. However, after Rogers went down, the 49ers signed Cox, and he quickly supplanted Wright on the depth chart. The team has said he prepared better in practice, but who knows what the real story is.

The secondary is doing solid work, but benefits when the pass rush is playing well. We saw that against both Carolina and Green Bay. When Cam Newton got time, he was able to make great passes to Steve Smith. When the 49ers got pressure on him and Aaron Rodgers, neither could do much of anything. Their performance will be dictated in part by the pass rush.

2. A focused-and-sober Aldon Smith seems to be terrorizing NFL quarterbacks in the second half of the year. Is there any difference in how he's played this year than last? What are his strong suits and what does he need to work on?

Smith appeared to have a bit of a lull over the final couple weeks of the season, but he has picked things up in the postseason. He seems to have some additional moves that have benefited both against the pass and the run. He still has his pure power and speed, but he's starting to add some solid technique that makes him all the better.

For now though, his sheer power might be his strongest trait. He has bulldozed over left tackles throughout his career, and it has paid off. I do think he needs to continue refining his technique, but as I mentioned, we've seen him improve since then. He still could use some improvement in his coverage skills. It is not his number on priority, so it's not the end of the world if it takes some time, but it's an area that would be nice to see him improve.

3. If you had to pick out a weakness or vulnerability in the Niners' defense, what would it be and why?

I would say going at them in the slot. Carlos Rogers can be effective as a cover man, but a speedy receiver can be problematic for him. If Percy Harvin plays, his ability to do so many different things concerns me. Before he got hurt last week, we saw him line up in several different positions. I suspect he could burn Rogers at least once from the slot.

Speaking of the corners, the problem I sometimes see is their inability to get their head around to make a play on the ball once it's in the air. They can provide excellent coverage, but if they don't turn around, a well-placed pass can kill that in an instant. The most glaring example was this past weekend. Tarell Brown had great coverage against Steve Smith, but Brown did not get his head around. Cam Newton placed a perfect pass in Smith's hands and it resulted in a touchdown. Had Brown turned around, he likely breaks it up.

Go after Rogers and go up top. Obviously running hard with Marshawn Lynch is a winning strategy, but this would be the next option.

4. I feel like Ahmad Brooks is somewhat the forgotten man on the elite Niner defense after everyone is done talking about the Smith Brothers, Bowman/Willis, and Donte Whitner/Eric Reid. What characteristics or skills make him so dominant?

While Aldon Smith is the big name, Ahmad Brooks has been an absolute beast this season. He has stepped up even more in the playoffs, but overall, he has been an incredibly unsung hero in 2013. He had two sacks against the Packers, and added 2.5 more against the Panthers. It's safe to say he is doing some thing this month.

Brooks is an athletic freak. He has been that way since college (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aErFwwUf9XE), but it's taken him time to put it all together in the NFL. After struggling with the Bengals, his time with the 49ers has seen him slowly improve. He brings speed and finesse as a pass rusher, without having one specific move to his arsenal. He has a nose for the ball-carrier, and just seems to be able to find his way through the mess to take said ball-carrier down. I wish I could be more specific, but he's just a very simple player, and I think that's why he flies under the radar every year (despite back-to-back 2nd team All Pro appearances).

5. For those that are unfamiliar with the Niners' defensive scheme, what's the cliff notes description of what they'll try and do to slow down Seattle?

The 49ers defense is not overly complicated. Vic Fangio is not one to send a lot of blitzers. He looks to get pressure from the defensive front, and it seems like eons will pass with only three or four pass rushers. That being said, he'll use that to lull you into a false sense of security, and then send NaVorro Bowman or another linebacker in out of nowhere. The 49ers did very little blitzing in the first half against the Panthers, but second half blitzes changed the game.

The most famous 49ers play at this point is the Aldon Smith, Justin Smith stunt. In the nickel, Justin lines up at right defensive tackle, Aldon lines up at right defensive end (I believe they can do it from the base 3-4 as well). Justin cuts to go outside, while Aldon loops behind him and comes inside. Sometimes (although not every time, as some might argue), Justin will grab hold of his offensive lineman, opening up space for Aldon. Anybody that says Justin Smith doesn't hold is full of it. He doesn't hold on every play, but he gets some jersey when he can. Refs don't call it, and as Anquan Boldin said (much to the chagrin of Sherman-haters!), if holding isn't called, it's not holding.

From a secondary perspective, they play a lot of man coverage. As I mentioned above, that can sometimes lead to problems in the way the 49ers defensive backs don't always turn their head for the ball. I suppose that's an issue for a lot of defensive backs.

The 49ers have added a wrinkle to their goal line defense. They normally run a six-man front out there, with two linebackers behind the six down linemen, but against the Panthers, they rolled out a 5-3 on the line. This opened some space for Cam Newton to attempt a quarterback sneak, but linebacker Ahmad Brooks lined up over that gap and stopped Newton. It was the first time the 49ers had run that alignment all season.

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