Making the Grade: Grading The 49ers Defense Through The Bye

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

Heading into the bye week Kyle Shanahan made clear that he will be taking a hard look these last six games to see which players, and presumably, coaches are in the team’s plans for 2019 and beyond. Even though it is a little past the midway point, coming out of the bye seems like a good time to issue some grades, specifically, for the defense.

Some people look at statistics as “numbers don’t lie” while others think “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” I tend to think that a lot can be learned from statistics, but they don’t tell the whole story. The 49ers rank as follows in per game averages this season: 10th in yards (344.2), 15th in pass yards (242.0), 13th in rush yards (102.0), but rank 27th in points (26.6). The 49ers also rank in the bottom half of the league in total sacks, fumble recoveries and interceptions: 18th in sacks (25.0), 23rd in fumbles recovered (3; tied with five other teams) and 31st in interceptions (2 - only Tampa Bay has fewer). The following takes a brief look at defense broken down into defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs and coaching.

Defensive Line:

The 49ers’ defensive line is the deepest unit on the team and features three first round picks; the talent is there but the composition is off, to paraphrase Alanis Morissette, it’s like 10,000 tackles when all you need is an edge. Without a true edge rusher it is difficult to accurately assess the performance of the group, after all, the defense ranks in the top half of the league against the run in total yards and 10th in yards per carry allowed. Where the line struggles is sacking the quarterback, but as currently constituted there are several players playing out of position. Grade: B-


Due to injuries and mismatched personnel, the 49ers’ linebacking corps has been about as stable of a position as drummer for Spinal Tap. Following the trade of Eli Harold, Mark Nzeocha started the season at Sam linebacker, and he gave way to Malcolm Smith, but neither is a fit for the position. The Mike and Will linebackers are the strength of the group, but rookie Fred Warner and Reuben Foster, in his second year, have had their own issues. Missed tackles have really plagued Foster (possibly due to a lingering shoulder issue), and Warner at times this year. The linebackers have also had their issues in coverage, particularly against running backs in the flat. Grade: C-

Defensive Backs:

Richard Sherman as played above expectations this season even as the other players in the secondary change more frequently than Red Hot Chili Peppers changes guitarists. Due to injury and poor play the 49ers have cycled through multiple players at right cornerback (opposite Sherman) and both the free- and strong-safety positions, which could be the leading cause of the continuous communication breakdowns that have plagued this unit all season. In spite of the personnel shuffling and lack of pass rush, the 49ers rank 15th in pass yards allowed per game. The 49ers defensive backs have been really hurt by their inability to force turnovers, particularly via interception (I am currently tied for second on the team with zero interceptions). The secondary has been particularly poor in end of game situations and likely cost the team wins against Green Bay and the New York Giants. Grade: D-


Kyle Shanahan specifically mentioned looking at player progression from the first two games to the last two as he evaluates who will be part of the team moving forward. Player progression falls just as much on the coaches as it does the players, so Shanahan’s microscope these final six games will be trained on the coaching staff, specifically the position coaches. As previously mentioned, the uneven roster makeup along the defensive line is part of the unit’s shortcomings, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that Solomon Thomas is not being used on the inside, especially in passing situations; that falls on the coaches. In the secondary, the cornerbacks are not turning their heads to find the ball in the air and it appears to be the technique they are being taught and that technique has led to some costly penalties and some opportunities for interceptions missed. Grade: D-

Final Thoughts:

Many have speculated that defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could be on the hotseat, but it is likely defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley who could have the hottest seat of any of the coaches. A well-coached team generally performs well following a bye week, so it will be worth keeping an eye on what adjustments the coaching staff makes going forward after having a chance to self-scout. Also, how does the defense play with a healthy Foster for perhaps the first time several weeks?

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