Without a dominant pass rush, the San Francisco 49ers secondary was exposed in a major way in the playoffs.
The 49ers were torched through the air to the tune of 940 yards and eight passing touchdowns in three postseason games—stats that show the secondary to be a veritable sieve.
During the regular season, the 49ers featured the No. 4-ranked pass defense in the NFL, allowing just 200 yards per contest through the air and just 19 passing touchdowns.
While the team's regular-season numbers were impressive, students of the game and many objective fans knew these numbers were partly skewed, thanks to a sometimes-dominant pass rush and a favorable schedule.
Therefore, it was no surprise to some of us that the 49ers couldn't stop their playoff opponents—teams with top quarterbacks and potent aerial attacks—from making big plays through the air.
We'll now take a look at some specific plays that highlighted the team's secondary struggles in the playoffs.
James Jones Burns Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson
In the first quarter of the 49ers' Divisional Round matchup against the Green Bay Packers, with the score tied at seven apiece, Aaron Rodgers connected with Jones on a 44-yard bomb that set up Green Bay's second touchdown of the evening.
Jones lined up on the far right side against Culliver, with Goldson as the safety over the top.
After the snap, Rodgers looked to the left, holding Goldson with his eyes while Jones ran a simple streak down the right sideline. It's important to note that Donte Whitner was responsible for the receivers running underneath, but Goldson's lust for the big hit had him eyeing the crossing route underneath.
By the time Rodgers came back to Jones, Goldson was well out of position for his over-the-top responsibility, couldn't get his hips turned around fast enough and Culliver was hung out to dry.
It's worth noting that Culliver was in excellent position, and Jones' catch was breathtaking. But if Goldson had been in proper position over the top, he and Culliver would have been able to force an incompletion—if not an interception.
Dashon Goldson Gets Burned By Julio Jones
Perhaps the most blatant mistake made by the 49ers secondary this postseason came in the first quarter of the NFC Championship game when Jones caught a 46-yard touchdown pass over Goldson.
Tony Gonzalez motioned from the left sideline to line up next to Jones right before the snap. Gonzalez then ran an out-route to the left sideline, drawing two defenders to him while Jones simply ran a streak up the seam, literally running right by Goldson in the process.
The most bizarre thing about this play is that the Atlanta Falcons didn't run an exotic play to trick Goldson—he simply got caught flat-footed as Jones ran right past him. By the time Goldson knew what had happened, Jones was almost in the end zone.
Judging by the look of confusion on Goldson's face after the play was over, it seems he was not sure of his assignment, but from what I can tell on tape, he was responsible for the deep zone and simply blew it.
Jacoby Jones Torches Chris Culliver in Super Bowl XLVII
Culliver didn't have a good week leading up to the big game, as his homophobic comments sparked public outrage and an immediate rebuttal from the home office.
His performance in Super Bowl XLVII only made things worse for the 49ers' second-year cornerback, as he was responsible for allowing one of the biggest touchdowns of the game late in the second quarter.
Jones lined up as the outside receiver on the right side, with Anquan Boldin in the slot. Boldin appeared to be the man who would be going deep, drawing Donte Whitner's attention, while Jones pulled off a double move that made it look like he'd be going inside on a cross.
By the time the dust settled, Culliver was about 10 yards behind Jones when Joe Flacco let go of the ball, and he had no chance of making a play on the ball.
To make matters worse, Culliver then failed to even lay a finger on Jones, allowing him to get up and run in for a devastating touchdown that put the Ravens up by a score of 21-3 with less than two minutes left in the first half.
The three plays we just saw only highlight the problems that have been present all year long for the 49ers.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) breaks down every single play of every game and documents their findings. According to the site, the 49ers secondary played well as a group for the regular season but isn't without its flaws.
- Donte Whitner ranks as PFF's No. 53 safety. Quarterbacks complete over 79 percent of all passes thrown at Whitner and had a passer rating of 128.5 during the regular season.
- Tarell Brown ranks as PFF's No. 14 cornerback, Culliver ranks No. 29 and Carlos Rogers ranks No. 46.
Rogers is still a savvy cornerback, but at the age of 31, it's clear his best days are behind him. Whitner is a big-hitting safety who brings a certain level of intimidation to the table, but he's a true liability in coverage.
With Goldson so enamored with big hits, he tends to get out of position, and we saw teams exploit his tendencies during the playoffs.
Brown and Culliver are good cover corners, but there's no doubt the 49ers' front office needs to take a proactive approach to bolstering the team's secondary.
Darrelle Revis, anyone?
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