Image Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers have enjoyed the experience of having one of the best defenses in the league: With a unit in the top 10 for interceptions and top five for takeaways, the secondary has taken a huge step forward from a dismal 2018 season.
But the 49ers aren’t alone, as the Panthers come to town with a high quality defense of their own. The defense’s 9 interceptions rank second to the Patriots (18!), and are tied for second in takeaways (15), giving the unit the nickname Thieves Avenue. Much like San Francisco, the blend of top tier pass rush and top tier secondary gives the Panthers a great blend of defensive talent and skill.
Usually a defense of this caliber has two great corners, but the Panthers just happen to have three of them. After missing three games Donte Jackson makes his return on Sunday, and he joins James Bradberry and Ross Cockrell to combine for a deadly triangle of cornerback play.
The three players have combined for 7 interceptions, and their passer ratings allowed are insanely low (James Bradberry: 46.6, Donte Jackson: 50.9, Ross Cockrell, 37.4). The secondary is allowing the tenth most receiving yards in the first seven weeks of the season (1,135), but they’re making up for it with constant takeaways and only four touchdowns allowed.
Each of the three corners mentioned has of course played dangerously in 2019. Let’s take a look at what makes each player so threatening to the 49ers’ undefeated season.
Few corners are playing as well as James Bradberry this season. In a contract year he’s been heating it up against some of the best receivers in football including Mike Evans and DeAndre Hopkins, so we can safely say the 49ers aren’t dealing with a slouch in Carolina’s CB1.
Take the below play against the Rams for example.
Bradberry’s ability in press coverage is terrific, and when he’s playing a little off coverage his speed and acceleration really stand out. He undercuts Robert Woods’ route on this play, and he gets an incredible boost of acceleration from his push off at the top of Woods’ route.
Bradberry’s quick feet and hip turn make this look too easy, and he intercepts this pass from Jared Goff on a fantastic play.
Though he’s only played three games Donte Jackson brings a potential blow to the 49ers’ game plan on offense. He was quite good in his rookie season and his start to 2019 has looked great as well.
For this section two plays stand out, both against the Cardinals in Week 3.
Here Jackson is playing bail defender on the right side of the field. He’s watching Kyler Murray’s eyes all the way as he gets set to throw to Larry Fitzgerald, still in the NFL. Fitzgerald doesn’t turn around in time when Murray fires this, but the thing to note here is how good Jackson’s coverage and vision are.
Right as the ball is thrown, Jackson breaks off his receiver and helps the nickel corner with his guy, arriving in time to pick up his first of two interceptions on the day.
The second was even better.
Again Jackson is playing in bail defender, this time against Damiere Byrd. Jackson gambles and lets Byrd go right by him, and his insane vertical snags this interception in. He was noted for his impressive vertical at the combine, and that played a part in one of the best interceptions I’ve seen all season.
Journeying between three times prior to 2019, Ross Cockrell appears to have found a home in Charlotte, where he’s been incredible subbing in for Donte Jackson during his time on the sideline due to injury. With Jackson back that puts Cockrell in a more supportive role, but as far as CB3s go Cockrell might be the absolute best right now.
Cockrell doesn’t flash insane athleticism but he’s an extremely consistent, balanced corner that rarely falls for double moves and isn’t left in the dust by some of the faster receivers in the league. His efforts against Will Fuller here almost result in a takeaway, but the pass falls through his hands.
Once again Cockrell is playing in bail defender, something the Panthers seem to do quite a bit of. As you may have guessed by the angles this takes we can expect a nice dose of corner routes (a favorite of Kyle Shanahan) to be sprinkled in the offense’s game plan on Sunday.
The Panthers defense has allowed the fourth fewest yards to tight ends this season, so it’s on the 49ers receivers to step up to give George Kittle some help. Emmanuel Sanders is set to make is debut so this should be a boost against a highly talented defense.
We can name drop Brian Burns, Gerald McCoy, Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, among others as stars on this Carolina defense, and that’s especially true of the corner trio of James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, and Ross Cockrell. The Panthers have the best defense the 49ers have yet to face and vice versa, and the misdirection, play action heavy 49ers offense could be in some trouble with a defense normally on its A-game.
Few mistakes are needed from Jimmy Garoppolo and company, especially against a trio of corners that have been so good in takeaways and coverage this season.
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