Image Credit: Bay Area News Group
In Week 5, the San Francisco 49ers fanatically put on a defensive and offensive clinic against the offseason darlings, the Cleveland Browns, in a decisive 31-3 thrashing. There were questions going into the game as to how well the team would hold up without Ahkello Witherspoon manning the outside cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman, if the rookie offensive lineman Justin Skule could keep Jimmy Garoppolo alive going against pass rushing phenom Myles Garrett, and how the 49ers own version of Glass Joe, safety Jimmie Ward, would perform in his first start of the season at free safety.
On the defensive side of the ball, neither Emmanuel Moseley, Witherspoon’s fill in, nor Ward failed to fill their roles and play with the same effectiveness that Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore had the first three games of the season.
Moseley was named the starter after Jason Verrett was placed on injured reserve, but it appeared that Moseley was going to be the guy whether Verrett was healthy for the game or not. Going up against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for your first career start might make some people shy away from the challenge but not Moseley. “E-Mo,” as his teammates call him, had a great game, grading out with a 75.9 coverage grade from PFF. When compared to what Witherspoon was doing the first three games in his breakout season, he is only three-and-a-half points behind him (79.3 coverage grade average for Witherspoon). On one long pass play against OBJ in the third quarter, Moseley’s coverage was so tight that Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield threw it out of bounds in an effort to force the ball into the coverage. Moseley also had a big pass break up in the endzone, showing his closing speed and his hands game when going against either bigger or quicker WRs. Overall Moseley gave up one reception for seven yards (with 8 yards after the catch; the play was a wide receiver screen) in 28 coverage snaps, giving Mayfield a 42.2 passer rating when targeting him.
Ward, suiting up for his first action after injuries kept him out for the first three weeks, earned the start after the Niners’ early Week 4 bye, even with Moore having played well in the first three games. Ward, as most 49er fans know, has been all-potential followed by all-injury. He has struggled to put all of his talent together for enough games in a row without breaking a bone. Ward has started at every position for the 49ers defensive secondary since being drafted as a safety-cornerback hybrid. Ward’s best season came half a decade ago, his second season in the NFL, when he was able to make it through the entire 16-game schedule, the only time he’s ever done so. On Monday he played better than he has for the past three or four seasons, doling out big hits and giving up just one long twenty-yard reception for the game.
But did Moseley’s and Ward’s play hurt, hinder, or leave the defense equally successful as they would have been with Witherspoon and Moore starting?
A saying fans of the NFL have started to hear more and more lately, is that it isn’t always the best eleven but the right eleven players on the field. This saying goes to the idea that if you have extremely talented players at every position, but they can’t play together and elevate each other’s performances, then they aren’t better than a team of players with lower individual talent but a collective ability to elevate each other’s performances above their natural ability. To see if Moseley and Ward had any effect on their teammate’s performances, we’ll take a look at the rest of the secondary’s PFF grades.
Now, looking at this scientifically, we have way too small of a sample size and a whole bunch of variables that we can’t even begin to account for. For starters, the front seven of the 49ers defense played amazingly on Monday night, keeping Mayfield running for his health the whole game (and I don’t mean his cardiovascular health). The Browns’ WRs could simply have had a down game. But, given the fact that the NFL enjoys some of the best parity of any American professional league, we’ll accept those variables are constantly changing for every contest and every team, making them at least constant in thought.
When looking at strong safety Jaquiski Tartt’s PFF grades over the first four games of the season, you notice that Monday was his highest overall graded game (59.4, 63.9, 67.7, and 71.7 Week 1 through Week 5 respectively) and his second highest coverage grade on the season (61.3, 58.4, 65.9, and 63.5 Week 1 through Week 5 respectively). He’s recorded 4 tackles in three of the four games this season, but Monday’s game he also recorded 4 stops and was targeted twice in coverage, giving up one reception for zero yards. Though his overall coverage grade wasn’t affected too much, his run defense grade was greatly improved, scoring a 75.6 on PFF’s scale. Whether it was from design or a ripple effect of having Ward lined up next to him, Tartt did play a slightly better game against the Browns than he did the first three games of the season.
Richard Sherman, the other starting member of the defensive secondary to play in all four games this season, actually saw a huge decrease in his PFF grades, even though he recorded his second interception of the season. In fact, his two lowest graded games came in Weeks 1 and 5, the two games in which he recorded picks. Against the Browns he was targeted more times than he is used to, and that normally leads to more receptions and lower grades. On Monday, Sherman was targeted eight times (compared to just three times for Moseley) and gave up four catches for 75 yards on those eight targets. Sherman did not shadow OBJ everywhere on the field, and not all of those targets were against him. The fact that he garnered triple the targets from Browns’ offense compared to Mosely, with the same number of coverage snaps tells you how comfortable Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens and Mayfield felt targeting Sherman.
Nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams enjoyed his second best PFF grade on Monday. He scored a coverage grade of 81.6 against the Browns, 17.0 and 25.3 points higher than his Week 1 and Week 2 grades respectively. His only better game was against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Against the Browns, Williams didn’t allow a catch on either of the two times he was targeted, and he also recorded an interception on a deflection at the goal line. Williams has played really lights out in the slot the last two games, only giving up one catch on four targets after giving up six catches on eight targets the first two weeks. With his steady incline, it’s hard to say that his improvement is due to the two new starters in the secondary, but their inclusion in the starting lineup hasn’t slowed him down any.
So, have the additions of Moseley and Ward pushed the 49ers’ defense to whole other level of play? While the 31-3 score might have some inclined to say that was their best defensive performance of the year, I’ll have to agree that the switches haven’t weighed the ship down or slowed its progress in any way. If the defensive line of Arik Armstead, Deforest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and D.J. Jones can keep putting the pressure on opposing QBs, whoever the 49ers put in the secondary should continue to thrive.
You can follow Travis on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!