After all, Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens’ receiving corps gutted San Francisco’s secondary for three touchdowns, not to mention an embarrassing 56-yard bomb.
There’s more to this defense-focused narrative, however. A unit that surrendered the second-fewest points and ranked No. 3 overall in the regular season just doesn’t fall apart due to pressure from the big stage.
A certain fundamental issue exists with the 49ers’ defense that was either masked by other strengths or simply overlooked because of how far the team advanced despite it.
Let’s begin by eliminating the proverbial elephant in the room: Cornerback Chris Culliver.
The 49ers second-year man allowed three 30-plus-yard gains against Baltimore—the worst of which being that aforementioned 56-yard TD to Dancing With The Stars newcomer Jacoby Jones. Ravens’ wideouts repeatedly burned him all game long.
Yet, when we alluded to the team itself being unaffected by Super Bowl nerves, it didn’t apply to every individual.
Culliver was clearly rattled following his unfortunate discriminatory comments regarding homosexuals in the locker room during one of his numerous media sessions. Outside factors rendered ineffective a defensive back that is eons better than what he showed on the third of February.
To wit, Culliver didn’t allow a TD to Green Bay’s prolific passing attack and made a pivotal interception against Matt Ryan’s Falcons in the conference championship. Better yet, he held quarterbacks to the 10th-lowest completion percentage (49.3) out of 113 corners evaluated by Pro Football Focus (membership required).
And forget blaming Carlos Rogers or Tarell Brown either. Rogers had his issues early on, but the unoriginal target for outside derision shored up his play in the postseason. Brown, for his part, shut opponents out of the end zone until the week before the Super Bowl.
So, if not Culliver, Rogers or Brown, then who deserves blame in the 49ers’ secondary? Certainly neither of the Pro Bowl safeties, right?
Strong safety Donte Whitner was a liability in coverage from Week 1 through Super Sunday.
Whitner surrendered a league-high eight touchdowns among NFL safeties. Only Patrick Robinson of the New Orleans Saints allowed more out of all defensive backs (via PFF).
Compounding matters even further is that Whitner coughed up four more when it mattered most in the playoffs. Both tight ends and receivers exploited him throughout the season.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for anyone familiar with the former Buckeye. He executes cringe-inducing hits, demonstrates high football intelligence as one of the quarterbacks of the defense and was a top-10 safety in 2011.
He’s also totally cordial with the media and fans (for whatever it’s worth).
That said, if it weren’t for the NFL’s preeminent cover linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Whitner’s deficiencies would be even more apparent.
Fortunately for San Francisco, the 2013 NFL draft is absolutely stacked with quality prospects at safety. And due to the savvy maneuverings by general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers are flush with 15 draft picks with which to attack this position.
Florida’s Matt Elam and Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International are both top-notch defenders that man the strong side. The 49ers could pick up either one early in the second round, especially since they just acquired the Chiefs’ No. 34 overall selection from the Alex Smith trade.
The University of Georgia’s Shawn Williams is another legitimate SS. He’ll be available as low as the third round.
With Whitner’s contract running through 2013, he could conceivably help develop these prospects for a starting role next season. Or, if one were to win the job in training camp, San Francisco’s depth in the back end just got that much better.
The 49ers might also target free safety (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
Goldson desires a long-term, top-dollar deal. As great as he is, drafting a replacement from the bevy of NCAA options makes sense both financially and in pure football terms.
Kenny Vaccaro is the highest-rated defensive back outside of Alabama’s Dee Milliner. The Texas product grades out as elite in cover skills and route recognition, among other categories (via ESPN). He could immediately step in and fill the No. 1 job.
With the aforementioned 15 selections, Baalke could easily assemble a package in order to acquire Vaccaro high in the first round.
Additional noteworthy options include the 6’2’’ Eric Reid out of LSU (second round), 13 career-interception man Phillip Thomas of Fresno State (second to third round) and SEC-trained D.J. Swearinger from South Carolina (third to fourth round).
We’ll conclude this discussion by illuminating what exists behind Goldson and Whitner on the depth chart.
Three names: Darcel McBath, C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson.
McBath and Spillman are excellent special teamers, but saw very few snaps on defense last season. They combined for a grand total of 68, and registered a mere five tackles (via PFF).
Robinson was a 2012 sixth-round pick and logged next to zero action on any side of the field. He made one tackle on special teams.
With contractual and performance issues plaguing the starters, and inexperience ailing the backups, safety is of the highest priority for the 49ers in April’s NFL draft.
Let us know what you think in the comments section below. Stay tuned for an article detailing why taking a defensive tackle is Order No. 2 on the 49ers’ draft docket.