Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Late season surge alter 2019 defensive plans?
This season wasn’t easy on 49er fans; the savior went down with a knee injury Week 3, and everything crumbled after that. But through the ups and downs of the season the favorite scapegoat for 49er fans was the defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh. The defense did have its faults, and some of that does fall on Saleh, but like any chef, he can’t cook if the cupboards are empty.
Similar to last season, the 49ers’ defense had a late-season surge that saw young players stepping into new roles, improved play on the field, and a renewed hope heading into 2019. The only problem is that, following the strong finish to 2017 and the hope of what could be, many of the young players regressed in 2018, showing the full warts of the defense and holes that were ignored.
Over the first eight weeks of the 2018 season, the 49ers’ defense surrendered 27 or more points six times, of those six, three were 33 points or more. That’s not a winning recipe no matter how good your offense is. Conversely, to close the season, excluding the Week 17 Rams game, the defense went three games allowing no more than 23 points. What was the catalyst for the turn-around, and how can it affect what the front office does this offseason?
No position group was harder hit by injury bug than the secondary. The 49ers started eight different safety combinations during the season, and with that kind of player turn over it’s impossible to build any type of cohesion on the back end of the defense. It showed. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers had the worst coverage grade in the NFL at 37.6;the second worst was the Raiders at a whopping 55.0. It’s no coincidence that once the safeties were set for the final push of the season with Marcell Harris and Antone Exum Jr. taking over the starting roles that we began to see some improvement in the pass defense. Before his season-ending injury against Seattle, Ahkello Witherspoon appeared to be turning a corner: over his last four games he surrendered only eight catches on 23 targets for 97 yards, and he also hadn’t given up a touchdown since the Week 7 match up against the Rams. Following Witherspoon’s injury, rookie Tarvarius Moore filled in admirably. He wasn’t quite up to the job, but the 2018 third-round pick was viewed as more of a project while making the transition from safety to cornerback.
This was the clear strength of the defense and it showed. DeForest Buckner led all defenders with an 82.9 PFF grade, setting a career high in sacks with 13 (PFF doesn’t recognize half sacks) and becoming a Pro Bowl alternate. But more exciting for the defense is the emergence of first- and second-year players. Solomon Thomas finally started seeing significant snaps on the interior of the defensive line, finishing the season with only one sack, but he added 21 hurries to his résumé; not coincidentally 11 of those 21 hurries came during the last four games of the season. Following the arrest and release of Reuben Foster, Elijah Lee stepped into the “Will” linebacker role and made the most of his opportunity. Lee was second on the team in tackling efficiency with a PFF grade of 80.8. Also seeing significant snaps along the front seven were rookie Jullian Taylor and second-year nose guard D.J. Jones. It took both of these players some time to see the field, but it seems a foregone conclusion that Jones will replace Earl Mitchell on the roster in 2019, and that Taylor will be a serviceable back up to Arik Armstead. Armstead himself turned in a solid season turning in the second highest grade among defenders at 74.8. If Armstead stays healthy and continues to progress into 2019 it would make sense for the team to sign him to a team-friendly contract extension. But most promising in the front seven might be rookie linebacker Fred Warner, who Robert Saleh called the smartest player he’s been around. Warner earned the “Mike” linebacker position in training camp and never relinquished it. Warner had some bumps along the way, but he finished the season with a respectable 63.9 grade from PFF.
While the defense took awhile to get going, they clearly hit their stride in the last quarter of the season. The front seven were able to generate pressure even with the lack of an established edge defender. The secondary was able to jell and showed signs of growth. Witherspoon was able to turn a corner, and Harris established himself as competition to Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety next year. But most important is the experience and competition that the late season performances will force this offseason. Players like Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert came into 2018 as the presumptive starters because of how they played to finish 2017, but in hindsight the team should have brought in some veterans to push the second-year players to see if they were ready. With the emergence of this year’s rookies, along with the 2019 draft and possible free agent acquisitions, the defense may be ready to turn the hot finish of 2018 into a dominant defense in 2019.
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