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Goldson, Whitner back in the thick of things
Dashon Goldson leads the way for fellow San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner after forcing a turnover against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 20, 2011. - photo by Photo by Stu Jossey

SANTA CLARA (AP) — For two guys who didn't know each other before last season, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner sure look like they belong together on the back end of the San Francisco 49ers' defense.

The hard-hitting safeties have picked up this summer where they left off last season, patrolling the deep middle, making the calls for the secondary and working in tandem as though they've been playing side by side for years.

Despite missing all of San Francisco's spring workouts after being designated the team's franchise player, Goldson was on the field for the start of training camp last week and hasn't skipped a beat.

And Whitner, who joined the 49ers last summer as a free agent, has continued to develop as a leader and mentor for others while bringing his usual feisty style to the defensive huddle.

The pairing of the two veterans is working out well for the 49ers, who had been trying for years to upgrade their secondary to put the finishing touches on one of the NFL's best defenses.

Goldson had a career year at free safety and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Whitner led the secondary in tackles and gave the Niners the physical presence they were looking for at strong safety.

Their play was a big reason San Francisco climbed to fourth in the NFL rankings for total defense and was playing as well as any unit in the league by the end of last season.

"You can't play good defense without good safeties," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "That's just been a fact over the years. And those two guys back there, they're a good tandem, they quarterback the secondary, they quarterback our coverage element. And they're both good at supporting the run and tackling because they are the last line of defense and one of the reasons we were able to not give up too many big plays last year, both in the run and pass."

Goldson and Whitner also contributed their share of big plays to a defense that had many last season. Goldson tied for second in the NFC with six interceptions and also recovered a fumble as the 49ers had 38 takeaways and a league-best and team-record plus-28 turnover differential.

Whitner, who led all NFL defensive backs with a career-high 140 tackles for the Buffalo Bills in 2010, was an ornery presence along the line of scrimmage and was second on the team with three forced fumbles to go with his two interceptions.

Both safeties made an immediate impact in the playoffs during San Francisco's 36-32 victory over New Orleans in the divisional round. Whitner had a crushing hit on running back Pierre Thomas at the San Francisco 2-yard line to knock the ball loose and knock Thomas out of the game, halting the Saints' long game-opening drive just short of the goal line.

Goldson later intercepted Drew Brees and returned the pick 41 yards to set up a touchdown that helped spark the 49ers to an early 17-0 lead. The pair also combined for 23 tackles in the game.

Six months later, Whitner says people still ask him "almost every day" about his big hit on Thomas. He also said that game was a good example of the different things he and Goldson bring to the safety position.

"We're not the same type of football player, and that makes us a really good safety combination," Whitner said. "He's more a center fielder, deep-half type of guy who wants to take chances getting the football and he'll still hit you. My job is to get the guys lined up, play extremely physical, adding to the run, covering tight ends. It's easy to work with somebody like Dashon who wants to work with you."

Whitner praised Goldson for finally signing his one-year, $6.2 million franchise tender offer last week just before the team's first summer practice. Goldson did not join the 49ers for any of their offseason workouts, but he worked out elsewhere with three different trainers to remain focused and in shape.

After signing a one-year deal with the team two weeks into training camp last year, then missing the first two games of the season with a knee injury, Goldson didn't want to fall behind this summer.

"I owed it to my teammates and I didn't want to miss another part of this training camp," Goldson said. "I wanted to come back out here and sharpen up, pick up where we started off last year. We did some good things last year and we've got a chance to do something special here. It's very important for us to start fast and finish faster. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be sharpened up on the defensive side of the ball."