COMMENTARY I The San Francisco 49ers field a high-flying defense that is willing to hit anyone in its way. From one through 11, the unit plays fast with reckless abandon. Arguably their greatest and most-feared hitter is eighth-year safety Donte Whitner, who joined the ball club in 2011. In his two years, Whitner has become a well-respected leader for the 49ers, helping turn the culture around in San Francisco. Although he has brought a number of positives to the franchise, he is the most overrated player on the 49ers entering the 2013 season.
3. Highlights Overshadow Production
Crushing opposing ball carriers and setting the tone for his defense is Whitner's calling card. One of his most memorable hits came against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 NFC Divisional Round matchup. As the Saints were marching toward the end zone, Whitner leveled running back Pierre Thomas, causing him to fumble while knocking him out of the game. That single play seemingly woke up the crowd at Candlestick Park.
Another memorable hit of Whitner's took place in Week 14 when the 49ers faced the Miami Dolphins. After breaking a few tackles, then Dolphins running back Reggie Bush was lifted up by the safety, and then slammed down onto the grass with full force.
Every team can use an enforcer like Whitner within their organization. The energy that he brings is infectious, which can swing the momentum of a game into his team's favor. But in an attempt to go for the game-changing hit, players like Whitner are prone to taking a bad angle or whiffing entirely on making the sure tackle.
Whitner possesses a deep highlight reel of hits that will get any football fan out of their seats. Those helmet-to-helmet collisions are entertaining for sports talk shows, but they don't always win games. That in turn can exaggerate a defender's overall play and value, which could have played a role in his naming to the 2012 Pro Bowl roster.
2. Vulnerable in Coverage
Whitner was burned time and time again last season. According to the numbers formulated by Pro Football Focus, the 27-year-old safety surrendered eight touchdowns while opposing quarterbacks carved out a 128.5 passer rating against him. Both figures are the most for any safety who played in at least 75 percent of his team's snaps during the regular season.
Even though his strength lies in run support and laying out receivers, his weakness in coverage has hurt the team. His troubles continued throughout the playoffs as he was responsible for four touchdowns. Unless the 49ers generate pressure from the front-seven, the opposing signal-caller will always look to target Whitner in the secondary.
While cornerbacks and safeties depend a lot on their pass rushers to disrupt the pocket, the best ones can still hold their own. Cleveland Browns' T.J. Ward and Pittsburgh Steelers' Ryan Clark are exceptional punishers, but are still serviceable in coverage despite not having an elite defensive line.
1. Living Off 2011 Reputation
Despite Whitner's poor coverage skills and overall down year last season, he still made the Pro Bowl squad. His spot was probably tied to the 49ers' success over the past two years along with their loaded star power on defense.
San Francisco ranked third in total defense but their strong safety was not deserving of the honorary achievement. In fact, Whitner should have made the Pro Bowl in 2011 where he had a habit of making plays for his team. That year, he notched a career-high 10 passes defensed to go along with three fumbles recovered. His presence was felt constantly in stopping the run, and his pass coverage was not as much as a liability.
Whitner's acknowledgement was solely based off reputation and team success rather than production.
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