• Travis Hawkins

Living Up to The Hype: Can The Defense Replicate The Magic?


Image Credit: 49ers

Despite having the number two scoring offense in the NFL last season (29.9 points per game) it was the 49er defense that carried them to the Super Bowl, and if they want to go back, it will be the defense that takes them there. What does the defense need to do to match last year’s effort?

Defensive Line:

Last season the defensive line was the engine that powered the Niners’ rise to one of the league’s top units. If the defense is to remain among the top units, the line will again be the unit that provides the boost.

The defensive line got off to a sprinter’s start last season averaging four sacks a game through the first eleven games, but like a sprinter running outside his distance, the line’s production slowed over the final five games with an average of fewer than one sack per contest.

The drop in sack production was largely a function of attrition. Injuries began to take their toll when Ronald Blair and D.J Jones suffered season-ending injuries and their reinforcements, Damontre Moore and Jullian Taylor, also suffered season-ending injuries, but perhaps the biggest drag on the line’s production came from Dee Ford’s nagging knee issues.

In his debut season with San Francisco, Ford provided just what the team hoped he would when they acquired him from Kansas City. He gave the Niners a speed presence off the edge that was a perfect compliment to Nick Bosa. With Ford on the field, the 49ers had a pressure rate of thirty-two percent and a sack rate of just over sixteen percent (16.2).

However, Ford’s knee tendonitis limited him to just under twenty-two percent of the snaps and without him the team’s pressure rate and sack rate fell to just under twenty-five percent (24.8) and just under five and a half percent (5.4) respectively.

The 49ers’ defensive line can replicate and even exceed the success they had last season if the depth of the line improves. There are plenty of snaps available in 2020 with the trade of DeForest Buckner to the Colts. Buckner played over eight hundred snaps last season and rookie first-round pick, Javon Kinlaw, is not going to be able to take all those snaps, so the plan is to have more of a rotation up front.

Training camp reports should always be taken with a grain of salt, but so far, the reports out of camp have been positive for the guys up front as a unit and the team appears better equipped to rotate more bodies along the defensive line in an effort to keep guys fresh. A couple of names to watch along the interior are Kevin Givens and Kentavius Street.

The number-one priority for the line rotation is going to be to keep the edge rushers rested and healthy. Kris Kocurek, the Niners’ defensive line coach, has hand-picked Kerry Hyder to be one of the reinforcements along the line. Hyder, who can play both defensive end and tackle, played for Kocurek in Detroit and recorded a career-best eight sacks in 2016. The Niners will also get Blair back this season. Blair’s absence was noticeable, particularly in the Super Bowl, when the defensive line looked gassed and was unable to get much pressure in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers will have a difficult time replicating the success they had last season on defense if the line is again beset by injury or they are unable to find a rotation that allows them to keep Dee Ford under 60 percent of the snaps, so that his knee tendonitis does not become an issue.

Linebackers:

The 49ers have quietly assembled one of the NFL’s best linebacker units led by Fred Warner. The addition of both Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw last season rounded out the unit.

Alexander was the big-ticket free agent signing that was meant to improve the pass coverage and inject some vocal leadership into the linebacker room, and he did that from day one. Unfortunately, Alexander’s season was marred by a torn pectoral muscle that would cost him most of the season and hamper him in the playoffs.

Fortunately, Dre Greenlaw, a rookie fifth-round pick, was able to step up and fill the void in Alexander’s absence. Greenlaw proved that he was built for the big stage when he made a game saving (at least temporarily) interception of a Russell Wilson pass in overtime on Monday Night Football and then in the regular season finale when he stopped Seattle tight end Jacob Hollister at the goal line to preserve a 49er victory and give them the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

The only questions about this unit coming into the season are: can Kwon Alexander stay healthy for an entire season? And, can Robert Saleh find enough snaps for Dre Greenlaw to continue his growth as a player? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then the 49ers will again have one the league’s top linebacking units. Ironically, the answer to both questions lies in Greenlaw’s playing time.

The 49ers deploy three linebackers approximately thirty percent of the time, which means the strong side (Sam) linebacker, typically played by Greenlaw, is not on the field the majority of the time. In an effort to both keep Alexander healthy and to continue Greenlaw’s growth, Saleh could wind up splitting the weakside (Will) linebacker snaps between Alexander and Greenlaw. A strict platoon is not necessary but dividing the playing time to take advantage of each player’s strengths would maximize the defenses chances to be most effective. If Alexander misses the majority of a third straight season or Greenlaw is relegated to only being on the field in base downs and special teams, the effectiveness of this unit will be hampered for this season and beyond.

The Secondary:

The secondary play improved last season and the 49ers allowed a league low 169.2 yards per game through the air and recorded 13 interceptions, just one year after recording an NFL record low of two.

The secondary’s improvement was helped by a vastly improved pass rush, but also by improved continuity in the back end. The Niners started seven different safety combinations in 2018 and the inconsistency in personnel turned into inconsistency in play.

The 49ers had to do far less mixing and matching in 2019, but they still had several different starting combinations among the cornerbacks and safeties and managed to find some depth along the way.

In order for the 49ers to remain among the top pass defense units in the league, they will need to solidify the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh called the competition for the position “open.”

Emmanuel Moseley, who started in the Super Bowl, figures to have the inside track, but Ahkello Witherspoon, last season’s opening day starter, has all of the physical tools one would look for in an NFL cornerback. Now, a surprise candidate has entered the fray in former Pro Bowler Jason Verrett.

The issue with Verrett is, and always will be, health. He has never started sixteen games in a season, and it has been five years since he has played more than four games in a season. Verrett, however, does represent the biggest opportunity to improve upon last year’s play. In an era where defensive performance has a tendency to vary year to year, taking a homerun swing with Verrett might be an acceptable risk.

The biggest opportunity among the 49ers defensive units to improve upon last year are the safeties. Returning starters Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt were steady though not spectacular performers in 2019, and one area both need to improve upon is forcing turnovers in the passing game. The 49ers did not have a single interception from a safety in the regular season.

It is unlikely that the 49ers will be able to hold teams to under 170 yards passing for a second straight season and one way for them to offset an increase in the amount of yards given up would be to take the ball away more.

There is certainly no guarantee that the 49ers defense can match or exceed the success of last season, but the elements are in place to make a run at it.

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