"I feel I'm the best corner in this league, and I'll test my skills against anybody," Clements said.
San Francisco's $80 million cornerback had ample reason to feel good about himself after nearly removing Calvin Johnson from the Lions' game plan. Clements' confidence in both his own abilities and the rest of the Niners' improved defensive secondary is just another reason to think his long-struggling club finally could be in for an interesting year.
With Clements and fellow cornerback Walt Harris dominating their one-on-one matchups with two of the NFL's most talented receivers, the Niners' 31-13 win pushed them to 2-1 for the second straight season. From the cornerbacks' play to the offense's consistent effort, nearly everything about San Francisco looks much better than last season, when a shaky club immediately lost eight straight games after those early wins.
"We did a great job on the back end, and we frustrated them into things they didn't want to do," Harris said. "We're not getting too cocky about what we can do, but we know this is a good start for both sides of the ball."
Despite giving up 5 inches and at least 30 pounds, Clements emphatically locked down Johnson, the rangy second-year pro who managed just four catches -- all in the second half, after the Lions trailed big. Harris was equally effective against Roy Williams, who had just two catches for 18 yards and committed an offensive pass-interference penalty to prevent Harris from making a sure interception.
"He said, 'I knew you were going to get it, so I had to shove you,"' Harris recalled with a grin. "That's what you love to hear as a corner."
Clements and Harris are in their second season together on opposite sides of the 49ers' defense. Though neither player is a vocal locker-room leader, the smooth veterans have complemented young linebacker Patrick Willis and do-it-all defensive lineman Justin Smith perfectly so far, holding Detroit to 240 yards -- just 67 in the first half.
Clements became the NFL's highest-paid defensive back last year when he agreed to an eight-year contract to leave the Buffalo Bills. Harris joined the 49ers with considerably less fanfare in 2006 after Washington waived him, but he earned a Pro Bowl trip that season and has been quietly consistent ever since.
San Francisco coach Mike Nolan raised some eyebrows when he kept 11 defensive backs on his 53-man roster -- 12, if you count kick return specialist Allen Rossum, who also can play cornerback. The depth paid dividends on Sunday, when second-year pro Tarell Brown stepped in for injured No. 3 cornerback Shawntae Spencer and immediately grabbed his first career interception while stonewalling Mike Furrey, Detroit's third receiver, who had just two catches for 8 yards.
"When I'm healthy, I think I can help this team in a lot of ways," said Brown, who injured his knee in last season's final game.
Nolan kept his defense in various forms of man-to-man coverage for about two-thirds of Sunday's snaps, and the formula seems to work well when the 49ers can rely on two strong cornerbacks. San Francisco also has generated a decent pass rush from Smith, Parys Haralson and Roderick Green, who took turns harassing Jon Kitna on Sunday.
Clements' boast seems even more justifiable because San Francisco is off to an unusually outstanding start in pass defense. The Niners are seventh overall in the league despite facing three veteran quarterbacks: Arizona's Kurt Warner, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Kitna.
"The secondary did a great job," Nolan said. "There's things that went well on defense, and there's things we can work on. It's too early in the season to say something is ahead of schedule, or where you'd like it to stay."
Notes:@ Nolan had no new information on Spencer, the former starting CB whose season might be over because of a knee injury.
CB Donald Strickland also sat out of Sunday's game with a knee problem, but it isn't thought to be serious. ... S Keith Lewis (knee), S Michael Lewis (elbow), S Dashon Goldson (shoulder) and LB Jeff Ulbrich (ankle) all came out of Sunday's game with minor injuries, but only Goldson didn't return. None of the problems is thought to be major. ... Nolan said LB Tully Banta-Cain probably will remain inactive as long as Green keeps playing well as a pass rusher.