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Updated: August 11th, 2012 4:34am
Pelissero: Starting Harrison Smith would give Vikings 'D' needed jolt

Pelissero: Starting Harrison Smith would give Vikings 'D' needed jolt

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Minnesota Vikings shouldn't waste any more time.

When practice resumes on Sunday in Mankato, Harrison Smith should be a starting safety.

That's not a knee-jerk reaction to the stomping taken by what passed for the starting defense in Friday's 17-6 loss to open the preseason at San Francisco.

Inserting Smith, the rookie first-round draft pick from Notre Dame, wouldn't fix fundamental breakdowns in the front seven anyway.

But as the Vikings try to push the dysfunction of their 2011 defense out of mind, they need all the discipline and attitude they can get.

A 12-play, 89-yard drive that barely even forced the 49ers to consider throwing the ball on their opening possession was just another reminder of how ugly things got last fall.

"I can't say we were missing tackles," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That wasn't it."

The Vikings did some of that on Friday, too, while allowing three 49ers backups -- Rock Cartwright, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs -- to rip off runs of 14 yards or more on the opening drive alone.

More disturbing were the wide gaps across the front and the angles taken by the likes of safety Mistral Raymond, whose weak approach allowed Jacobs to bounce an inside run to the sideline for a 23-yard gain.

"They're a very good offense," cornerback Chris Carr said, "and they run multiple sets and they have all those tight ends and run a lot of toss-cracks. It was difficult on us. We need to work on some things."

Fourth-string receiver Brett Swain easily beat Carr on a fade for the 49ers' first touchdown, giving them a 7-3 lead they never relinquished.

Then, it was backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick's turn to take a read-option keeper 78 yards for a score when Nick Reed gave up the backside.

By halftime, the 49ers already had 198 rushing yards on 22 carries (9.0 average).

"We've got some work to do with our run defense, for sure," Frazier said. "We struggled in that area. We'll go back and look at the tape and do the things that are necessary to try to get better each week in this preseason so that when we do open up the season, we're heading in the right direction."

Already resting two starting linemen (Jared Allen and Kevin Williams) and one of the NFL's best tackling cornerbacks (Antoine Winfield), the Vikings lost starting nose tackle Letroy Guion to a knee injury on that opening drive.

They hadn't done much live tackling since training camp opened and hadn't done any opponent work on the 49ers, whom they'll see again on Sept. 23 at the Metrodome.

"When you're not game planning, it's not a good thing," Carr said. "You're at a little disadvantage to an offense. But at the same time, if you're sound in your rules and your techniques, then teams really shouldn't be passing for a lot of yards or rushing for a lot of yards."

The 49ers had 265 rushing yards on 39 carries (6.8 average) before three merciful kneeldowns at the goal line in the last 2 minutes.

They added 152 more through the air on 20-of-29 passing (69.0%), the only real blemishes being three sacks and a Solomon Elimimian interception caused by Reed's shot on third-stringer Scott Tolzien's arm.

The Vikings completed only 11 of 27 passes (40.7%) for 149 yards -- minus 23 lost on four sacks -- and ran 19 times for 82 yards (4.3 average) against a San Francisco defense that rested star defensive tackle Justin Smith and mostly just ran its base packages.

"We shouldn't use (game-planning) as an excuse to go out there (and struggle), because you just can't rely on scheme," Carr said. "You have to rely on your fundamentals of football."

The play of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, third-year halfback Toby Gerhart and a revamped offensive line including top draft pick Matt Kalil were encouraging on Friday night.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has a good idea where all these young pieces should go and is taking every opportunity to ensure they're fitting correctly.

There are new pieces on defense, too, and for whatever reason, coordinator Alan Williams and company are waiting to put the most important one on the first-team board where he belongs.

It's not as if Smith lacks the smarts or guts to supplant Jamarca Sanford or Raymond, who ceded enough snaps to the rookie this past week for Smith to have two spirited run-ins with Percy Harvin on the practice field.

Smith held up just fine again on Friday, most notably cutting off an end-around to Keiland Williams for a 1-yard loss -- the only 49ers run play all day that didn't gain yardage.

"I feel like the regular season will be a whole 'nother level," Smith said. "But it's good getting these reps under my belt, just kind of getting used to it."

Said Frazier, "I thought the plays that (Smith) got, he did a good job. I can't remember anything glaring that was negative. I thought he held his own and was in command of what we were asking him to do. So, we'll go back and look at the tape and evaluate him and see where he lines up at this next week."

The guts of the Vikings' defense always has stood as the greatest question on a rebuilding roster, from Guion and Fred Evans at the nose to Jasper Brinkley at mike linebacker to whatever they end up rolling out at the safety spots.

That every player atop the depth chart was a part of last season's defensive debacle only heightens the uncertainty about how this group gets better, especially on a night when Alan Williams' pledge to do the little things right looks like a lot of big bluster.

There is no quick fix. There rarely is in the NFL, particularly for a team that went 3-13 the season before and would defy the odds by merely avoiding a third straight last-place finish.

But the Vikings drafted Smith to help fix this thing sooner than later, and what happened here on Friday night is just one more reason that sooner should probably mean right now.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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