Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


49ers Could Have an All-Time Great Defense in 2020

Levin T. Black
Aug 29, 2020 at 12:08 PM


The San Francisco 49ers defense has a chance to dominate like few defenses have ever done before in the NFL this season. The defense, if it remains healthy, is stacked with talent. That won't do it alone.

Talent-wise this 49ers defense is very good but not great to the level of the early-2000s Baltimore Ravens or mid-1980s Chicago Bears. This 49ers defense is more comparable to the early-2000s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and even then, the 49ers might be worse on sheer talent.

So, why does this season's 49ers defense have a legitimate chance to be as statistically dominant as those teams? It's all tied to COVID-19.

Certainly, the 49ers have one of the most talented defensive rosters in the NFL right now. Second year defensive end Nick Bosa is considered a top candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, Richard Sherman is still an All-Pro cornerback even if he's lost half a step, linebacker Fred Warner is primed to elevate into the argument for the best linebacker in the NFL and multiple other players could make the Pro Bowl.

The talent starts up front for the 49ers. The aforementioned Bosa is joined on the starting line by double-digit sack earner Arik Armstead, the 49ers' top pick in the draft Javon Kinlaw and former Pro Bowler Dee Ford. The 49ers then add great depth with players like D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair, Dion Jordan and much criticized, but good for a backup, Solomon Thomas.

Following the dominant front is the linebacker trio of Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw. The three lead a group at the position that is among the best in the league.

That front seven allowed the 49ers secondary to dominate last year. The 2019 49ers gave up fewer passing yards, 2,707, than any defense since the 'Revis Island' New York Jets in 2009. Yes, the 2019 49ers gave up fewer passing yards than the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars and any of the Legion of Boom Seattle Seahawks, including the 2013 championship team.

The 49ers defense is talented, but as was stated earlier, it isn't talented to the degree the best defenses in league history were. What will give the 49ers the opportunity to make a run at some records is the continuity they have in the face of COVID-19 limitations.

Unlike any season before, continuity will be a key component. There were no OTAs and there is no preseason. The teams that return the most players and are running the same systems as in 2019 have an advantage that can't be overstated.

The 49ers not only have one of the most talented defenses, they also return nearly everyone. They will be playing in the same system as well. It will be the fourth year with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and second year employing the wide-9 technique up front. There are no big changes to the scheme on defense.

Offenses normally have the advantage early in the season as defenses have to adjust to what the offenses are doing following an offseason to install new gimmicks. Without the OTAs and preseason games to work out the kinks and get players experience running the new wrinkles offensively, don't be surprised if the tables turn and defenses do better early. Offenses could look sloppy.

There will be defenses that are sloppy early as well. For some teams there will be a blown coverage more often. The 49ers shouldn't have those issues thanks to all the returning players.

Ten out of 11 starters return to play in the same system as the year before on defense. Breaking it down further, 17 of the top 20 individuals who played the most snaps defensively for the 49ers in 2019 return, including everyone from the secondary save one. The injured then released D.J. Reed, who played just 125 total defensive snaps, is the only member of the secondary not back from the team that allowed the fewest passing yards in the league.

The only thing that could hold the 49ers back is their obvious Achilles heel. That would be injuries. When it comes to injuries, it seems the 49ers have been snakebitten for the better part of a decade, and that is especially true defensively. Bosa has a well-documented injury history and is currently nursing a muscle strain; Kinlaw had injuries in college; Armstead dealt with injuries early in his career; Alexander has an extensive injury rap sheet, including missing most of last season; both safety Jimmie Ward and safety Jaquiski Tartt have missed a chunk of games multiple times in their careers; and Sherman literally had an Achilles injury.

Then there's Ford. When he's healthy, he might be the league's premier speed rusher. He's rarely healthy. He played fewer than 22 percent of the 49ers defensive snaps in his first year with the team a year ago and has already gotten banged up in training camp this year. He'll likely be ready for Week One, but the risk of injury is extreme.

With Ford, the 49ers likely have the league's best pass rush. Last year Ford's speed on the outside was the difference between a smothering 49ers defense early in the season and the merely good one in the second half of the season.

It seems unlikely Ford can play 1,000-plus plays as he did in 2018 for the Kansas City Chiefs, but 500, more than double last year's total, could be possible. If he does that, and the other members of the defense don't miss too much time, the 49ers could be a historic force to be reckoned with for other teams.
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.


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