After the first two games of the season, three of the four 49ers' starting defensive backs are ranked in the top 10 at their respective positions according to Pro Football Focus. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are the #3 and #7 ranked safeties respectively, and Jimmie Ward is the #9 ranked cornerback. Tramaine Brock ranks in the middle of the pack. Of 64 starting corners, Brock ranks #39.
Despite their rankings, the 49ers defense surrendered 353 yards and 4 touchdowns to Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday in a 46-27 loss. Immediately, comparisons were made to last year's week 2 performance against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the two games were entirely different.
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In last year's 43-18 loss to the Steelers, Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and 3 touchdowns. In that game, the secondary clearly struggled with their assignments in defensive coordinator Eric Mangini's zone-heavy scheme. At times, after blown coverages where defenders where nowhere in the vicinity, players literally looked at each other, unsure of who had made the mistake. There were clear mistakes made all throughout the secondary regarding who was supposed to be covering whom. Prior to this season, players lamented that they often had to think too much Mangini's scheme, rather than just reacting.
The players' enthusiasm for defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's defense has been a major topic of conversation in the 49ers' locker room this season. One of the main aspects of the scheme that excites the players is the ability to play a lot of man-to-man coverage. They got what they wanted on Sunday, but with disappointing results. However, despite a couple of exceptions, the players didn't make many mistakes in coverage. They simply got beat by great plays from really talented players.
The lone example of a player absolutely blowing a coverage on a big play was Bethea's play against tight end Greg Olson in the second quarter. Bethea bit on Greg Olson's slight fake towards the sideline before getting caught flat footed as Olson blew by him and hauled in the pass for a 78-yard touchdown.
Besides that play, on most of the Panthers' big plays, the 49ers' coverage personnel were in position to make the play, but just couldn't. Newton's 25-yard pass to Kelvin Benjamin on 3rd and 7 early in the third quarter was a highlight reel catch with Ward in perfect position. Watching the replay over and over, it's clear that Ward did everything possible to prevent the reception. He actually gets his hand on the ball just as Benjamin does, then taps it again, before Benjamin makes a one-handed grab with his left hand. Ward's coverage on that play could be used in a training video on playing coverage – except for the fact that Benjamin made the catch.
Ward did, however, appear to make an error on Benjamin's 10-yard touchdown catch that came shortly afterwards. On that play, no other Panthers' receiver was in the area and Antoine Bethea was clearly responsible for Benjamin on the inside, leaving Ward responsible for the outside. Ward, perhaps believing he knew what route was coming, also played inside leverage and allowed Benjamin to turn outside for the relatively easy touchdown reception.
On the next possession, Newton hit Ginn running down the sideline for a 52-yard gain against the coverage of Brock. This play could not have been covered any better without interfering with Ginn. Brock had his right hand on Ginn's back and reached out with his left for the deflection. His arm simply missed the ball as it dropped in. Cam Newton made a perfect pass against good coverage.
Benjamin was at it again on the next possession from the 9-yard line, and Ward was right there with him. On the slant, Ward quickly diagnosed the play and exploded towards Benjamin to knock the pass out of his hands. Once again, he actually got his hand on the ball, but was unable to wrestle it from Benjamin's grip.
On a key play in the 4th quarter, it was nickel back Chris Davis' turn to cover Benjamin. With the 49ers trailing 31-24, on a crucial 3rd and 10 and a chance to get the ball back, Newton threw a 25-yard strike to Benjamin. Davis, like Ward several times before him, was in perfect position. He had his hands on Benjamin, but Benjamin, like an NBA power forward going up for a rebound, simply boxed out the much smaller Davis and cradled the pass an instant before Reid could arrive and attempt to break it up.
That Benjamin highlight set up the final touchdown, a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Devin Funchess over the coverage of Antoine Bethea. In this case, Bethea wasn't fooled, was in position, but got his head around a split second too late. By the time he tried to knock the ball away, the 6'4" Funchess snatched it for the score.
What should be encouraging is that the mistakes that were made should be correctable ones. The fact that the players were, far more often than not, actually in position to make plays, with their feet in the right place and no separation between the receiver and defender, bodes well for their prospects going forward. There aren't many other Cam Newtons and Kelvin Benjamins in the NFL. Sometimes, freakishly athletic players make plays that can't be stopped. It happens. However, countering that takes great individual plays from defenders, and the Niners' defenders will need to make their share of those going forward.
The bigger problem may be the lack of support from the offense. At halftime, the score was 17-10 in favor of Carolina, and the 49ers were very much in the game. In the third quarter, the 49ers offense had the ball three times and punted the ball three times. The Panthers had more touchdowns in the quarter (2) than the 49ers had first downs (1). Going three and out repeatedly had to affect the defense, and playing on short rest versus a team with extended rest probably magnified the issue. By the end of the third quarter, the lead was 31-10.
The fundamentally sound play of the 49ers defensive backs, including rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson in limited action, should give the team reason for optimism going forward. The team forced four Carolina turnovers, and if they can limit the opposing offense's number of explosive plays going forward, they just might return to their place among the NFL's elite defenses sooner rather than later.