Image Credit: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle
Heading into their Monday Night showdown with the Cleveland Browns, the 49ers have one of the best defenses in football. At the beginning of Week 5, the Niners rank eighth in points per game (18), third in yards (283.3), and fourth in takeaways (seventh). According the Pro Football Focus, the 49ers currently rank third with a team coverage grade of 83.6; considering they finished 2018 last in that category – with a score at just over 30 – this shows the strides the defense has made through the first three weeks of the season.
With the defense looking night-and-day different than last season, it feels almost disingenuous to look for issues on that side of the ball, but there may be some. While the defense is only allowing 18 points per game, there has been at least one long scoring play in each game, and there’s been one constant in those three plays: free safety Tarvarius Moore. It hasn’t been Moore’s who has made the play, but instead it’s been Moore consistently taking poor angles in pursuit. In 130 coverage snaps he’s allowed only one reception for eight yards and is currently allowing a passer rating of 36.9 with one pass break up. Those numbers look good on paper, but more important than his coverage is his tackling and his pursuit while playing the deep safety. Moore has speed to spare; he was clocked at his pro day with a 4.32 40-yard dash, and coupled with his 6’2,” 190-pound frame, he’s the type of athlete who the 49ers would want on the back end. With that speed players shouldn’t be running past him, but we’ve seen that happen three times this season, each resulting in a score.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and secondary coach Joe Woods are presented with an interesting conundrum: let Moore work through his issues, or insert often injured Jimmie Ward at free safety.
Ward’s appeal has always been as a jack-of-all-trades in the secondary: never great at any one position, but serviceable at them all (when healthy). After Ward returned from a broken clavicle, the apparent plan was Ward starting at free safety and then moving down to nickel-cornerback in sub packages with Moore coming onto the field. Part of the reason for this could have been that starting nickel-cornerback K’Waun Williams was missing time with a lingering knee injury, but Saleh and Kyle Shanahan have always said that their goal was to get the best 11 players on the field.
I’d be surprised to see Ward start the game at safety this Monday night. Considering his injury history, he’s not a player who I would feel comfortable depending on until he can show he can stay healthy. While Moore’s mistakes have been magnified, he’s still played the position well enough. Looking at the current construction of the roster he seems to be the long-term answer at the position and he should be allowed to learn from his mistakes. That’s the only way he’s going to improve. While the 3-0 start is great and both Seattle and L.A. look beatable, realistically this team is at least a year away from competing for championships. Let Moore get his mistakes out of the way now so that he can flourish later.
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