It’s not exactly goodbye double bummer, hello twin killings, but for the first time in six years both the 49ers and Raiders may actually be fun to watch again. Not only will Mike Martz boost S.F.’s worst-in-the league offense and Darren McFadden electrify the touchdown-starved Silver and Black attack, local football fans will finally see some solid defense on both sides of the Bay. Given last year’s struggles — the Niners had a franchise-low 31 sacks and the Raiders allowed opposing running backs a league high 5.1 yards a carry — the expected resurgence is that much more remarkable.
While the 49ers still don’t have a dominant nose tackle like they did in the glory days of Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield or Michael Carter, they have made big strides in revving up the pass rush.
With the addition of high-motor free-agent defensive end Justin Smith playing in front of last year’s rookie sensation Patrick Willis on the right side and lightning-quick Manny Lawson, fully recovered from knee surgery, bearing down on the quarterback’s blindside, old war horses such as Kurt Warner, who starts for the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick on Sunday, better be ready for the blitz-happy 49ers.
Mix in talented newcomers Takeo Spikes and Ahmad Brooks with solid holdovers Tully Banta-Cain and Jeff Ulbrich, plus a pair of good cornerbacks in Nate Clements and Walt Harris, and there’s no way opposing teams will be putting up 30 or more points a game as they did five times last season. Think how much better life will be for quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan starting his first NFL game this weekend not trailing by three touchdowns at halftime.
Unlike the 49ers, who have a brutal schedule, the Raiders face only one team coming off a winning season in their first dozen games, including Monday night’s opener in Oakland against the Denver Broncos. Powerful defensive tackle Tommy Kelly’s promising return from last year’s knee surgery is the key to the Raiders’ revamped defense.
Pass-rush specialist Derrick Burgess added 10 pounds of muscle and now gets a chance to bounce from side to side, which should help him avoid the constant double-teaming that saw his sack total drop from 16 to 11 and then eight the past three seasons.
The biggest upgrade is in the secondary, which could have old Raiders fans reminiscing about Oakland’s legendary “Soul Patrol.”
New strong safety Gibril Wilson, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the New York Giants, has more tackles the past five seasons than any safety in the league.
A buffed up Michael Huff looks much more effective at free safety and with former pro bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall playing opposite one of the game’s best in Nnamdi Asomugha, it now allows defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to turn his dynamic young linebackers, Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard, loose.
Of course both teams will go through growing pains with inexperienced starting quarterbacks. But if the Niners can keep the heat off of O’Sullivan and the Raiders can give Jamarcus Russell just a little time to shine, these two storied franchises will leave the ranks of NFL bottom-feeders.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5-9am on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.