The 49ers’ defense was supposed to be the unit that spearheaded another deep playoff run. While it wasn’t likely to match the strength of the 2019 unit, it was certainly supposed to perform at a higher level than it has through the first eight games.
Just how bad has the defense been? We went through and issued grades for each position to figure out how far they’ve fallen below expectations.
(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
This is supposed to be the unit that spearheads the 49ers’ defense. While Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead have both put together good years, but the rest of the line has left a lot to be desired. Bosa and Armstead have combined for 58 of the team’s 126 pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Samson Ebukam has just 10 pressures and one sack in a disappointing first year in San Francisco for the free agent signee. Dee Ford had 3.0 sacks, but a back injury landed him on injured reserve indefinitely. The interior has struggled badly with Javon Kinlaw out for the year following knee surgery, and teams have averaged 4.4 yards per carry against them. The 49ers defense has allowed 148 yards or more in each of their last three games since Kinlaw went down. Maurice Hurst’s calf injury has also impacted the interior with much of the onus falling on DJ Jones, Kentavius Street and Kevin Givens. That trio has been okay, but their inability to consistently stop the run and generate pressure is a significant issue.
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This is another position where it hasn’t been bad overall, but the linebacker play is well below the standard set over the last two seasons. Dre Greenlaw’s absence has hurt with Azeez Al-Shaair putting together inconsistent performances in his stead. Fred Warner hasn’t been as good for the 49ers either though after earning a First-Team All-Pro nod last season. While run stopping has been an issue, coverage is where the Warner-Al-Shaair combo has gotten torched. Combined they’ve allowed 50 receptions and four touchdowns on 62 targets. They’ve also missed six tackles each. This is one area that really needs to get better if the 49ers are going to turn their season around.
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Jason Verrett’s injury in Week 1 had a sizable impact on a 49ers cornerback group that was relying heavily on his presence. Rookies Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas haven’t been able to break through as viable options for 49ers coaches, so the hole left by Verrett has been filled by veterans Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick. The result has been mostly disastrous. Emmanuel Moseley is having a nice year though. He has seven pass breakups, hasn’t allowed a touchdown, and quarterbacks have a passer rating of 70.3 when targeting him. He’s the only real bright spot for the 49ers’ cornerbacks through the first half.
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The 49ers’ safety play hasn’t necessarily been bad for the first eight games, but neither starter Jimmie Ward nor Jaquiski Tartt has had a significant impact on games. Combined they have zero interceptions and only one pass breakup. Now they’re both hurt going into Week 10 leaving Tavon Wilson and rookie Talanoa Hufanga to man the back end. In a secondary as thin at corner as the 49ers, they needed their safeties to be among the league’s best and they haven’t been.
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The special teams guys deserve some attention too because they’ve been really good this year! Long snapper Taybor Pepper has held down a position that was becoming an issue for the 49ers. Kicker Robbie Gould’s lone miss this year was a 52-yard try in Week 1, and punter Mitch Wishnowsky is one of the NFL’s best this season. A three-game stint with Joey Slye where he missed a couple extra points is the only thing dropping this grade down a bit.