A lot of attention has been paid to the 49ers pass defense this week and with good reason. They have given up over 900 yards and 6 touchdowns over the last 3 weeks, and with Aaron Rodgers coming up this can't be good.
Jim Harbaugh is fond of telling reporters to not grab onto the low hanging fruit, so I decided to climb up the tree and give it a closer inspection. The first area of inspection was the pass rush, after all, they have only been able to generate 2 sacks over the last two weeks. Something must be wrong in that area.
What I found was a pass rush that has actually maintained the same level it has all season. You may say, "But with only 2 sacks how can that be?" Let me explain. According to ProFootballFocus, the 49ers have been able to pressure the quarterback on 47.09% of drop backs over the course of the full 2013 regular season. Over this last 3 game stretch, the 49ers have pressured the opposing quarterback on 45.25% of drop backs. This means that there has been a drop off in pressure, by a total of 3, or 1 per game.
After the pass rush, I decided to put the secondary under the microscope. For the season, the 49ers defense gave up a passer rating of 76.4 which is one of the best in the league, but over the last 3 weeks they have given up a rating of 87.1. Obviously there is a problem here. Or is there?
Jim Harbaugh is among the best coaches in the NFL, especially when it comes to managing situations, and this is where 49ers fans get up in arms. Managing the game is why the team often runs the ball more in the second half with a lead but this is about the defense, and it helps explain the performance of the pass defense.
To look at the 49ers situational pass defense, I broke the passer rating up by when they have only a single score lead or are trailing and the passer rating when up by two or more scores. As was previously noted, the 49ers pass defense gave up a rating of 76.4 for the season. When playing with a single score lead or trailing, the 49ers have allowed a rating of 71.5 for the season, compared to a 78.1 rating when up by two or more scores.
Now let's take a look at their performance in these areas over the last 3 weeks. The 49ers have given up a rating of 75.7 when the game was tight, and 95 when they've had a big lead. Considering that the 49ers jumped out to leads of 17+ early against Tampa Bay and Arizona the large yardage totals given up makes sense. The 49ers were playing situational defense.
Does this cause a little additional stress for the faithful? Sure it does, but it has worked. According to Mike Sando of ESPN the 49ers are 5-1 under Harbaugh when giving up 390+ yards passing with those games all being decided by 7 points or less.
During the World Series run of the 2010 Giants, the rallying cry became, "Giants baseball, TORTURE!" In many ways the same can be said for 49ers football.