Image Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated press
For my first article for the Hub, I was assigned to write about which second-year player I thought was going to make the leap, and there were a lot to choose from. But I wanted to make a splash, announce myself to the Hub and the 49ers fanbase, so I didn’t take the easy route and picked George Kittle or Reuben Foster, I picked seventh-round draft choice Adrian Colbert. Needless to say, over the first five weeks of the season, that doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.
What’s gone wrong?
Colbert’s 2017 highlight reel included hits. Big hits. Colbert was making a name for himself delivering the kind of punishment from the free safety position that the fanbase hadn’t seen in a long time. His next level speed combined with his penchant for lowering his shoulder saved the defense from more than a few big gains. With limited playing time in his rookie campaign Colbert finished the season with a respectable 73.1 grade from Pro Football Focus. It’s safe to say expectations were high for him coming into his second year as the presumptive starter at free safety. But instead of things going right, it seems almost everything has gone wrong.
Like the other members of the defense, Colbert has been bitten by the “can’t tackle” bug. Running backs that have gotten to the third level or receivers after the catch have had little issue running through Colbert’s attempts at arm tackles. He made a habit of dropping the hit stick last season and endeared himself to the fanbase because of it, but he needs to get back to fundamentals and start making the tackles that stop opposing offenses from making big gains.
The responsibilities of the free safety position vary little from defense to defense, but the value of a free safety varies dramatically depending on the defense. In the Seattle scheme that Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh like to run, free safety may well be the most valuable position on the defense. They patrol the deep middle of the field, providing a safety over the top that allows the cornerbacks to play aggressive press-man coverage. It’s imperative for the safety to keep opposing receivers in front of him while taking good angles at ball carriers.
Colbert has failed at both of those responsibilities this season. His 2018 PFF grade is 36.7, good for 80th in the league. At the time of this writing Week 5 hasn’t been completed so his game against the Cardinals hasn’t yet been factored into his overall score. But considering how poorly he played a deep pass to Christian Kirk on Arizona’s first play of the game, there’s a good chance his overall may actually drop by Tuesday. But that play perfectly sums up Colbert’s season to date: what should have been a simple play that he’s run hundreds of times at practice turns into disaster due to an easily correctable mental mistake.
Whose fault is it?
It’s easy to just point and Colbert and say: “you’re bad,” but it might not be that easy. Saleh has been the fanbase’s favorite target for their ire the last few weeks, but this defense was working last season. While Colbert has clearly regressed, others on the defense have also. Aside from the missed tackles, which we at the Hub wrote no less than three articles on last week, mental errors have plagued the defense. Outside of Richard Sherman, this is still a relatively young defense and mistakes are bound to happen and each week we’ve seen them. But through these Saleh seems to have a quick hook on some players while letting others run with a long leash. Ahkello Witherspoon has been predictably picked on by opposing quarterbacks and the team has admitted that he’s been battling an ankle injury this season, so it seems the approach is to leave him on the field until he gives up a big play, and then pull him. That strategy is maddening. Either leave him out there to make mistakes and learn and hopefully rebuild his confidence and chemistry with Colbert, or shut him down and let him heal. One of the reasons the Legion of Boom was so great was because of the chemistry that was built by the players. Sherman knew where Earl Thomas was going to be and could trust that he had the help he needed. By constantly switching Witherspoon in and out, he and Colbert will never reach that point.
Also crippling the secondary is the complete lack of pass rush the front seven are generating. The 49ers passed on pass rush specialist Harold Landry in the 2018 draft and that decision in hindsight seems damning. Shanahan said this offseason, “You don't just walk in and take a guy like Cassius Marsh's job.hy” That’s a nice sentiment, but Marsh just recorded his first sack of the season in Week 5. Amazingly the defense is on pace for only 29 sacks this season, one less than last year’s poor pass rush. Between voiding Elvis Dumervil’s contract and passing on a pass rusher, the front office did this team no favors in helping them get to the quarterback. When the opposing quarterback has all day to throw plays are going to be made through the air no matter how good your secondary is.
I’m not making excuses for Colbert, and I don’t think he would want anyone to either. His mistakes are fixable and he very well could bounce back and show the same playmaking ability that he exhibited last year. But if he doesn’t the team may be pressed into giving Earl Thomas a look in free agency, because when you absolutely need a Seattle scheme free safety, no one does it better.
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