Donte Whitner would like the 49ers defense to establish an identity right out of the gate heading into the team’s Week 1 visit to Lambeau Field.
“When people say ‘49ers defense’ they are going to talk about turnovers,” the seventh-year safety said.
Turnovers were a major factor in helping the team to a 13-3 record a year ago as Vic Fangio’s unit took the ball away 38 times, tied with Green Bay for the most in the league.
Whitner himself tallied two interceptions and recovered three fumbles in 2011, his first season with the 49ers.
It’s no surprise that taking the ball away has become a mantra for a 49ers defense that returns 10 of 11 starters from last season.
“You can go into the game with the mindset that we are not going to just make the tackle, we are going to strip for the football,” Whitner said. “If you go to strip the football 50 or 60 plays a game, the football is bound to come out two or three times a game.”
That ball-hawking mentality has paid off in recent seasons as the 49ers defense has forced 51 fumbles since 2009, third most in the NFL.
Whitner has clearly bought in to that approach as evidenced when he forced a key fumble at the San Francisco 2-yard line, which was recovered by Patrick Willis, during last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff game.
“When you have a pass rush like ours and guys that get to the quarterback, push the pocket up the middle and on both sides you have tips and you’re going to get fumbles,” Whitner said in praise of the team’s front-seven. “When you have guys that are playing physical each and every snap you’re going to get impact fumbles, you’re going to get strips and lawn mower fumbles where we pull the football out.
“The one thing that we can control is to look at the football film to see which guys are loose with the football because that’s the thing you can’t change in a week. You can’t change what you naturally do to get your balance with the football.”
Turnovers could be especially important this weekend as the 49ers and Packers used the two best turnover margins in the NFL with +28 and +24 respectively last season en route to the two best regular season records in the NFC.
The Packers were even better at protecting the football than they were in taking it away, so reaching Whitner’s goal might be a tough task on Sunday. Green Bay only turned the ball over 14 times last season, and just six were Rodgers interceptions.
“He’s not throwing interceptions,” Whitner said of the Packers quarterback. “A lot of times when guys get their hands on the ball it’s coming so fast that a lot of the DBs aren’t really catching it. You get some tips and overthrows, but other than that you get some tips where it hits the guy in the hands or the chest, but he’s not really catching it.”
Whitner has embraced the challenge of going up against the reigning NFL MVP right off the bat. The 5-foot-10, 208-pounder doesn’t want it any other way.
“We are going to have to understand what they like to do in certain situations,” Whitner said. “We are going to have to trust our study and trust what our coaches have given us throughout the week… A lot of times you will have to anticipate him throwing to that spot or to that guy and actually break on the football before he throws it.”
While most teams may prepare to go up against a strong-armed quarterback like Rodgers by cranking up the velocity on a Juggs machine, Whitner said the 49ers are equipped with the ideal practice solution.
“I don’t think you have to do that when you have a guy like Colin Kaepernick,” Whitner said. “When you have a guy that throws the ball that fast and that hard, if you have him throw you 5-to-10 footballs, you should be ready to adjust to a game-like situation with Aaron Rodgers throwing it.
“I have never caught a football as hard as Kaepernick throws it. It’s a really fast ball. I don’t know if they ever clock quarterbacks in the National Football League, but I guarantee he’ll be up there in the top-five.”
Only time will tell if catching Kaepernick’s fastballs has adequately prepared the San Francisco secondary for the challenge that waits in Lambeau Field.
Still, going into such a high-profile opener against a talented team, Whitner isn’t worrying about the newfound pressure that accompanies trying to follow up a successful season.
“The way you combat pressure is you go out and work hard each and every day,” Whitner said. “You make sure you’re taking your work home with you. You get in there early and you pay attention to the details so when you get out onto the football field you can perform.
“That’s what we do around here and I think that’s what we are going to do Sunday.”
Tags: Colin Kaepernick, Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis, Vic Fangio
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