Ward off Demons: How the Secondary Shut Down Stafford
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Well, wasn’t that something?
After the San Francisco 49ers defense in Week 9 made the Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback Colt McCoy look like Joe Montana, they made the Los Angeles Rams starting QB Matthew Stafford look like, well, Colt McCoy. After picking off only two passes in their first eight games, the 49ers got two more Monday night when safety Jimmie Ward recorded a pair of interceptions in the first quarter, returning one for a touchdown. On a night where the defensive line wasn’t getting to Stafford regularly, the secondary stepped up their game.
Ward wasn’t they only one making plays. Emmanuel Moseley should have had an interception in the second half on a deep Stafford pass if rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga didn’t knock it loose. K’Waun Williams had an interception called back due to a pass interference call. All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner had a ball thrown right to him that he dropped. Moseley could have had a third first-quarter interception for the defense on a ball that Stafford threw high, but it was just out of his reach. The secondary was everywhere against the Rams’vaunted passing attack. Nobody outside of Cooper Kupp caught more than three passes and Van Jefferson was the only other player to record more than 20 yards receiving, with 54.
It wasn’t just interceptions, though. The 49ers did a great job of giving up only short underneath throws and then punishing the receivers for catching them. Kupp, the league’s leading pass catcher, caught 11 passes for 121 yards, but much of that yardage was done in garbage time with the 49ers up three scores. He was kept out of the endzone, and none of his catches ever felt that dangerous. Newly acquired Odell Beckham Jr. caught two passes for 18 yards and seemingly gave up on the play when Stafford threw his first interception. Late in the game, when the Rams needed third-down conversions, their receivers consistently dropped balls with 49ers defenders bearing down on them.
Even though the 49ers were called on a couple of pass interference penalties, their timing on breaking up passes coupled with the range of Ward as a center fielder was a huge improvement. Several players recorded pass breakups. The only player who didn’t make any plays was cornerback Josh Norman. Ward and Hufanga complemented each other nicely, and Moseley has begun to regain some of his earlier form that led the team to let Ahkello Witherspoon leave in free agency.
For the game, Stafford was forced to throw 41 times, partially due to the Rams falling behind. Like all defensive units, the 49ers’ secondary is a lot stronger when its opponent becomes one-dimensional. The Rams ran only nine designed run plays, picking up 51 yards. The Rams offense was so out of sync that in the red zone Stafford ran past the line of scrimmage before throwing a ball out of bounds, a penalty. It was obvious that Stafford struggled to find an answer to the 49ers’ bend-but-don’t-break attack, even without getting hit repeatedly.
The defensive line accumulated only two sacks, but they constantly forced Stafford to move around in the pocket and forced him to throw high multiple times. If it wasn’t for the constant uncalled holding of defensive end Nick Bosa, he would have had multiple sacks. The three levels of the defensive unit did a better job of working together, and the 49ers jumping out ahead kept the Rams from settling for screens. When the 49ers defense can keep receivers in front of them, they win games.
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