LISTEN: The No Huddle Vault: 49ers Legend Ricky Watters →
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports


49ers’ Secondary Ranks Amongst NFL Best Despite Sunday’s Performance

Anwar Jamison
Sep 20, 2016 at 11:01 AM


Videos are auto-populated by an affiliate. This site has no control over the videos that appear above.
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.

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.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


2 Comments

  • Ted
    #Don'tlookatme
    Sep 20, 2016 at 10:19 PM
    1
  • Dave G.
    Excellent breakdown. Thanks. I'm glad you touched on the short wee too. It seem the defense was tired toward the end. The offense was doing nothing and the team had traveled across the country on a short week against a team that had 10 days of rest. Thanks NFL.
    Sep 20, 2016 at 2:30 PM
    2


More San Francisco 49ers News



PFF Ranks 49ers' Charvarius Ward the Third Best Cornerback in the NFL

By Jon Opelt
Jun 3

Pro Football Focus (PFF) announced its top 32 cornerbacks heading into the 2024 season, with the 49ers' Charvarius Ward ranked third in the league behind Pro Bowlers Sauce Gardner of the Jets and the Chiefs' Trent McDuffie. Ward, who prefers the nickname Mooney, owned the third-best pass coverage grade (86.5) among cornerbacks last season, behind the Bears' Jaylon Johnson (91.0) and Gardner (90.8), even though he was targeted on more than 100 pass plays. Ward had passes thrown his way more than twice as often as Johnson and Gardner. PFF's coverage grades, primarily influenced by plays where the defender was targeted, took into account the ability



NFL Network will broadcast 49ers' preseason finale vs. Raiders

By David Bonilla
Jun 11

NFL Network announced it will carry 21 live preseason games, including the San Francisco 49ers' preseason finale against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on Friday, August 23, at 7:00 p.m. PT. This means 49ers fans outside the Bay Area will get to watch two of the team's three preseason matchups. In addition to the game against the Raiders, the Sunday, August 18 home contest against the New Orleans Saints will be nationally televised on FOX, as previously reported. The 49ers will also participate in joint practices with the Saints in Southern California ahead of this game. The lone 49ers preseason game that won't be available to a national audience is the opener on Saturday, August 10, against the Tennessee Titans in



Six 49ers stars land in NFL merchandise rankings

By David Bonilla
Jun 11

After representing the NFC in last season's Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers are once again poised as championship contenders for the upcoming 2024 season. The team has been to four NFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls over the past five seasons. Success begets popularity, as evidenced by the remarkable presence of six 49ers players in the NFLPA's rankings of officially



49ers' minicamp schedule: Will Brandon Aiyuk or Christian McCaffrey attend?

By David Bonilla
Jun 3

The San Francisco 49ers are set to conclude their offseason program with a two-day mandatory minicamp. Initially scheduled for June 4-6, the team plans to eliminate the final day of on-field work, as has been customary in recent years. All eyes will be on the lookout for two players who have been absent during organized team activities (OTAs)—wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Christian McCaffrey. Aiyuk awaits a contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings just made wide receiver Justin Jefferson the highest-paid non-quarterback in


Latest

More by Anwar Jamison

More Articles

Share 49ersWebzone