SANTA CLARA — Nothing establishes a defense like a hard-hitting safety, roaming the deep middle and clocking any opponent who ventures into the area unaware.
As they prepare for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers don't have one of those guys. They have two. Free safety Dashon Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner, while overshadowed by the likes of tackle machine Patrick Willis and sack hoarder Aldon Smith, form a punishing one-two punch in the San Francisco secondary.
"The physical presence that those two guys bring at the back end, it's amazing," 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown said. "It helps this team, and it also brings an identity to this defense."
Brown should know. He not only has witnessed plenty of big hits by his safeties. He was on the receiving end of one of them, when Goldson missed the Giants' Hakeem Nicks and inadvertently plastered Brown on a pass late in the third quarter of last year's NFC championship game. Brown suffered a concussion.
More frequently, the 49ers safeties limit their damage to the opposition.
Goldson's victims include Tampa Bay's Mike Williams and Cleveland's Greg Little in 2011, and Arizona's Early Doucet in Week 8 of this season; some called the hit on Doucet, which separated the wide receiver from the ball (and very nearly his molars) the hardest of 2012.
Whitner had a memorable body slam of Dolphins running back Reggie Bush in Week 14, but the hit that defines his two-year stint with San Francisco occurred just shy of a year ago, in a home playoff game against New Orleans. The Saints took the opening kickoff and, as they so often do behind Drew Brees, marched methodically down the field. But on third-and-7 from just inside the 49ers' 8-yard line, running back Pierre Thomas caught a pass at the 5, headed for the end zone — and was obliterated by Whitner.
The safety's helmet-to-helmet hit knocked Thomas cold and dislodged the ball, which was recovered by Willis at the 2-yard line. The 49ers had established a brutal tone that would help carry them to victory.
Asked if his teammate's hit got the Niners fired up, Goldson answered: "Through the whole stadium, man. That was definitely a picker-upper for us in that whole game. Just set the tone and our mindsets throughout those playoffs, because a lot of guys, it was their first time in the postseason, and we wanted to go out there and make our presence felt."
The 49ers have had past enforcers at safety. Ronnie Lott was pretty much the gold standard in that regard, and Tim McDonald inspired some fear, too. Around the NFL currently, players like Arizona's Adrian Wilson, the Jets' LaRon Landry and Seattle's Earl Thomas are known for their rugged play and heavy shoulder pads.
But it's rare to have two such enforcers in one secondary.
"Where do you go?" Goldson wondered aloud. "Like, who do you throw the ball to across the middle? At some point you have to make up your mind and throw the ball across the field somehow, because not every team has outside routes all the time. Some gotta come across that middle. So it's like, who do you challenge?"