49ers believe ex-Raven helps tough secondary Langham at corner left by new Raven Woodson

August 09, 1998|By SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

STOCKTON, Calif. -- How can a team with the best defense in the NFL last season and a pass defense ranked No. 2 hope to get any better when it loses one of the best cornerbacks ever to play the position?

The 49ers feel they improved now that Antonio Langham, one of the best young, veteran defensive backs in the NFL, has joined them to replace Rod Woodson, who clearly had lost a step off his legendary coverage skills last season.

Woodson had a career-high 12 penalties -- twice as many as any other player on the team -- called on him last season.

Of course, getting a healthy Marquez Pope back at the right corner will help, too. Pope missed 11 games last season after badly spraining his foot in the second game and was not back to preinjury form when he returned.

But bringing in the 26-year-old Langham to replace the 33-year-old Woodson is where the 49ers feel they have made a step up.

"We've lost experience, but still you're looking at a guy who's been a four-year starter," said defensive backs coach Jim Mora. "He was a first-round draft choice [Browns, 1994] and played for a national championship team at Alabama. He's got that winning attitude. He's fit in well with our group."

Coach Steve Mariucci said there is no assurance Langham is going to make the all-time NFL team, as Woodson did. But Woodson also played hurt much of the time last season.

"He had three interceptions in one game [Sept. 14 vs. the Saints] and didn't have an interception after that," Mariucci said. "He was often nursing a calf strain, or a lower back, or there were some days when he couldn't practice."

Langham, who signed a five-year, $17 million contract, said he likes the 49ers' defensive scheme, because it calls for more man-to-man coverage than he was used to with the Baltimore Ravens.

"It exposes the corners a lot, but it also gives them a chance to do what they're supposed to do best," he said. "It's a tough life out there. You've got to have a one-play memory all the time. It helps to have amnesia where you forget what you did on the last play."

Langham does not have Deion Sanders speed, maybe not even Tyronne Drakeford speed, and the lack-of-speed label has followed him since the college-combine workouts.

"I don't know what his speed is," Mora said. "All I know is he's fast enough to cover these guys. I have not seen him get run by."

Langham had three interceptions last season, and he returned one for a touchdown. He has 12 interceptions in his four seasons.

"The one thing I learned from the time I started playing Pop Warner football is that a great technician can make up for speed and other stuff he may be missing," Langham said. "A lot of time when it's hot like this in a game, your legs start to give out on you, I don't care how fast you are. You've got to be more of a technician than an all-out flash speed star."

Not only is he not fast, he's not big either.

Covering J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens in practice gives Langham a chance to work on his big-receiver coverage technique. He gives away four inches and 40 pounds to Stokes; three inches and 30 pounds to Owens.

"It's good going against those guys because they give you everything, including the pushing and shoving that's part of the NFL now," Langham said.

The 49ers' defense typically takes a back seat to the offense, and that is fine with Langham.

"I like to think of the defense as silent killers," he said. "You don't have to have all the publicity going into a game. A silent killer is worse than a noisy killer."

Langham has not been amid this much talent since he was a member of Alabama's 1993 national championship team.

"A lot of what I see here reminds me of what we had at Alabama. It scares me a little bit sometimes," Langham said.

"Everybody was high on the offense, but we were the ones pitching shutouts and putting points on the board when they couldn't move the ball. It's the same here.

"When the defense steps on the field, we say, 'Things might not go good for the offense today. We got to figure out some way to put points on the board down the stretch.' "

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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