• Adrien Julienne

Reliving the Top Defensive Plays of the 2020 Season

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

In a season plagued by injuries and adversity, the San Francisco 49ers’ defense performed admirably to send Robert Saleh off in a bang in his last season as their coordinator.

Despite being undermanned, San Francisco’s defense played well enough to keep most games close.

Although most fans have probably already wiped this season out of their memories, there were plenty of highlight-worthy plays that deserve a review.

All gas, no brakes!

Week 1 – Cardinals @ 49ers – Jaquiski Tartt’s Interception Off Greenlaw’s Deflection

Coming off a Super Bowl run with a dominating defense, and an aspiring head coach as a defensive coordinator, the 49ers entered Week 1 of the 2020 season with high expectations.

San Francisco’s stellar defense had all-hands-on-deck against the Cardinals and got off to a great start in the second quarter in front of the empty seats of Levi’s stadium.

Up 10-7, Arizona’s offensive line trips up Nick Bosa to set a up a quick pass. Thankfully, Dre Greenlaw reads the play well and times his jump perfectly to deflect Kyler Murray’s pass.

Jaquiski Tartt, who had dropped in the box to prevent a potential run, easily picks up the ball and runs it back 16 yards to get his offense in scoring territory. First turnover of the year for the 49ers’ defense on a tip drill.

Week 2 – 49ers @ Jets – Fred Warner Forces Turnover on Downs

You will see Fred Warner’s name quite a lot in this list.

His first highlight play of the season shows him attacking the gap to stop the running back behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-1, forcing a turnover on downs early in the game.

Rookie Javon Kinlaw makes a quick inside move that allows Warner to see the play develop before racing down through the opening to blow up the play.

Warner’s speed, vision and tackling abilities are on display here. The former third-round pick has turned himself into an absolute superstar since his coming into the league in 2018.

Week 3 – 49ers @ Giants – Fred Warner Picks Off Daniel Jones

Fred Warner continues to dominate on the haunting turf of MetLife Stadium.

The Giants are on a two-minute drill down 13-6 before the half. Warner drops back in zone coverage and quickly sees Evan Engram breaking out his route. He barely has time to turn back before All-Pro Fred jumps the cut and makes the interception.

Granted, Danny Dimes didn’t really throw a dime there, but credit Warner on the read and his quickness to jump the route and make the play.

Week 4 – Eagles @ 49ers – Azeez Al-Shaair’s Diving Interception

If you’re not familiar with the undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic University, I highly recommend this article from Matt Maiocco for NBC Sports Bay Area. Azeez Al-Shaair is someone you want to root for.

Against the Eagles on prime-time TV, Al-Shaair got his highlight reel tape going by making an incredible diving interception after Carson Wentz’s ball was tipped by Javon Kinlaw.

Carson Wentz holds onto the ball too long and Kinlaw does a good job to break away from his block, apply pressure and time his jump perfectly to tip the ball.

Al-Shaair dives to make the catch right before the ball hit the ground. Hard not to be excited for the young player!

Week 6 – Rams @ 49ers – Jason Verrett Picks Off Goff in the Endzone

For the record, I am a fervent defender of Jared Goff. I think he can be a good starting quarterback in this league, and I hope he’ll prove the Rams wrong. However, it’s impossible to deny how terrible the 49ers defense makes him look every time he plays against his hometown team.

Week 6 of the 2020 season was no different.

As the Rams neared the goal line to make it a one-possession game late in the third quarter, Jared Goff throws a dangerous pass in the corner of the end zone for Josh Reynolds. Jason Verrett, who was covering Robert Woods, jumps the play to attack the ball in mid-air and come up with the interception with both feet in.

It was a questionable decision by Jared Goff to throw the ball there but the design of the play by Sean McVay left a lot to be desired.

The Red and Gold will be hoping to see more plays like this in 2021.

Week 7 – 49ers @ Patriots – Fred Warner Makes Outstanding Interception

All-Pro Fred can do it all.

In a battle between two struggling quarterbacks, Cam Newton experienced a rough outing against San Francisco’s defense in Week 7 to cap off New England’s worst home loss in two decades.

Newton’s accuracy was all over the place in this game and Fred Warner took advantage of it with an impressive diving catch as he was dropping back into zone coverage.

As Warner continues to cement himself as the best cover linebacker in the NFL, the 49ers’ front office knows it is going to have to open up their check book in 2021.

Week 7 – 49ers @ Patriots – Emmanuel Moseley Picks Off Cam Newton

Cam Newton forces the ball down the field into double coverage and not a lot of good things were going to happen on this play. Cam overthrew his receiver and Emmanuel Moseley followed the ball well to make the easy interception.

The main highlight on this play is the interception return for 50 yards. The entire defense reacted quickly to allow Moseley to bring the ball back to midfield and help the offense start in an ideal position to extend their lead.

More on Moseley next.

Week 9 – Packers @ 49ers – Emmanuel Moseley Wins One-on-One with Davante Adams

As San Francisco were slated to be short at cornerback next season, they were able to retain both Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams for another year. The longest contract extension for a defensive back, however, was with Emmanuel Moseley, who signed a two-year deal to stay with the 49ers.

An undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, Moseley was an integral piece of the team during their run to the Super Bowl last year and did a good job this year stepping up into a starting role throughout the spate of injuries the team endured.

There is no turnover in the highlight below, just Moseley casually lined up against one of the best receivers of the game in Davante Adams, who was waiting to catch the ball from his MVP quarterback before Moseley stretches to break up the pass down the field.

This is an amazing play worthy of being in the highlight reel. Moseley is an intriguing talent who continues to develop and could already be a lock to start opposite Jason Verrett next year.

Week 12 – 49ers @ Rams – Jimmie Ward Forces Fumble

Given how terrible the 49ers’ offense (except for Deebo Samuel) played in this game, the 49ers needed their much-maligned defensive unit to sweep the Rams.

After causing a fumble against the Saints the week before, Jimmie Ward continued his hot streak by snatching the ball out of Malcolm Brown’s hands. This was an amazing play by the veteran safety that would set the tone for the remainder of the game.

Week 12 – 49ers @ Rams – Future Hall-of-Famer Richard Sherman Picks Off Goff

This wouldn’t be a defensive highlight list without a play by Uncle Sherm.

After coming back from an injury against the Rams, Richard Sherman wasted no time in picking off Jared Goff.

Once again, it’s unclear where Goff was trying to throw to on this play, but as usual, bad things happen when quarterbacks throw to Sherman’s side of the field.

The former Stanford Cardinal snags yet another interception to add to his illustrious career. It is still unknown where Sherman will play next year, but we already know where he’ll end up. And that is Canton, Ohio.

Week 12 – 49ers @ Rams – Jimmie Ward Robs Jared Goff

We mentioned earlier that Jimmie Ward was on a hot streak. Here, he strikes again by punching the ball out of Goff’s hands before Kerry Hyder recovers it for a nice return.

Ward has always had great instincts on the field, and this routinely shows on tape. The former first-round pick stayed low in the box waiting for the play to develop before zeroing in on Goff as soon as he started scrambling.

Just as with the first fumble of the game, Ward was able to reach the ball on the opposite side of the carrier. He ended the season strong with several turnovers to add to his career stat sheet.

Week 12 – Javon Kinlaw’s First Career Interception and Touchdown

You’ve already seen the first-round rookie’s name pop up in a few highlights earlier. This time, he causes the turnover himself by dropping into coverage and picking off the football on the way to his first NFL touchdown.

It was his captain, Fred Warner, who audibled right before the snap and told him to drop in zone coverage. Javon Kinlaw executed accordingly, and the ball came his way.

The fact that All-Pro-Fred was able to guess the play before the snap says something about Sean McVay’s offense. But this game likely spelled the doom for Jared Goff’s tenure as a Ram.

Week 14 – Washington Football Team @ 49ers – Jason Verrett Leaps for the Grab

Alex Smith’s last season in the NFL wouldn’t see him return to the Bay Area. The 49ers had to relocate to Arizona as they hosted the Washington Football Team.

In one of his last games as a pro, Smith tried to throw a deep ball down the left side of the field, before Jason Verrett made an amazing leaping catch down the sideline.

The Fairfield native’s vision and quick feet are on display here as he baited Smith into making a rare mistake before jumping on the opportunity.

Week 16 – 49ers @ Cardinals – Ahkello Witherspoon Picks Off Kyler Murray

Ahkello Witherspoon looked like he finally started to find himself as the season came wounding down. Naturally, as a tall former 49ers cornerback, he will fit right in with the Seahawks next year.

Witherspoon did a great job blanketing the receiver and turned around at the perfect moment to intercept the ball and allow the 49ers to run down the clock on their way to victory.

If you were looking for game tape on Kyler Murray’s struggles, this Week 16 matchup against the 49ers’ defense will give you plenty. Murray feels the pressure there and throws off his back foot on a fade route.

As a result, his throw lacks power and allows Witherspoon to adjust and make the catch.

To conclude, it’s a relief to see that most names cited above are set to return to the 49ers next season, except for Ahkello Witherspoon and (maybe) Richard Sherman.

DeMeco Ryans will make his debut as the new defensive coordinator and it will be fascinating to see how the defense evolves next season.

Despite being an offensive-minded coach, Kyle Shanahan has proven to invest a lot in his defense and there is no reason to think that the unit will take its foot off the gas next year.

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