If there was one exploitable weakness during the San Francisco 49ers' run through the postseason and into the Super Bowl, it was their secondary.
49er fans know this statement well.
While San Francisco's defense remained an element critical to the team's success in 2012, holes began to open up towards the end of the regular season. Defensive end Justin Smith's injury in Week 15 against the New England Patriots was a significant blow to 49ers that had an effect on what the team would do heading into the playoffs. Not only did the defensive line struggle thereafter, but the secondary also was hampered by the injury.
Certainly injuries and fatigue can affect every team, yet Smith's injury proved to be the turning point in San Francisco's season that year. This turning point appeared more crucial in the weeks that followed the matchup with the Patriots.
2012 - A Summary
For the first thirteen games of the 2012 season, San Francisco's secondary looked pretty good. The defense did not generate the same amount of turnovers like they had in 2011—38 compared to 25—but the solid play of the defensive line combined with arguably the best linebackers in football assisted the backfield to a great extent.
Yet towards the end of the season, highlighted by Smith's injury, the secondary started to fall apart and suddenly San Francisco's defensive dominance showed signs of weakness.
San Francisco's backfield was not exactly the epitome of success in Super Bowl XLVII, nor was it very effective against the Atlanta Falcons during the NFC championship game two weeks before. While there were some notable members of the unit, including Pro Bowl safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, the secondary was far from adequate during the 49ers' push into the Super Bowl.
Of course not all of San Francisco's failures can be solely pinned on the secondary.
For starters, the lack of production in the backfield was a direct result of the defensive line's inability to rush the passer. The absence of pressure on opponents' quarterbacks like Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens or Matt Ryan of the Falcons resulted in numerous opportunities to make plays downfield.
Simply put, if a talented quarterback has enough time, he will find a receiver.
Yet the statistics of San Francisco's Super Bowl run speak for themselves. The defense gave up an average of 306 passing yards per game in each of the three playoff games the 49ers played. In contrast, the team averaged a little more than 200 passing yards per game during the regular season. While the entire defensive unit ranked second in the league in 2012 in points allowed, the secondary had become a liability in the playoffs.
Fans can easily recall opposing receivers like Julio Jones and Anquan Boldin making 49er corners look bad. They can recall 49er corners like Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver getting burned on routes. In the wake of San Francisco's Super Bowl loss, these memories leave a bitter taste in the mouth of every 49er fan.
Following the game and as the team entered the offseason, there were numerous questions as to what the franchise would do to alleviate the situation. Goldson was a free agent and despite his comments hoping for a return to San Francisco, there was no indication that the 49ers would bring him back. In addition, would the 49ers look to bolster their secondary, either through free agency, a trade or perhaps the draft?
One of the main questions surrounding the 49ers' future was what to do about Goldson. The Pro Bowl safety was seeking a large contract and the free agent market looked promising. Re-signing Goldson appeared to be a top priority for the 49ers, yet considering the fact that he would command a lofty price tag, granting him a new contract would have been difficult.
For starters, San Francisco had to consider a number of future contracts which included budding stars like Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick. The team was already pressing up close to the salary cap and an expensive, long-term deal with Goldson would have certainly hindered the chances of locking up other stars.
In hindsight, it is probably better that the 49ers elected not to re-sign Goldson. That amount of money would have been a hindrance to say the least.
Yet Goldson's departure put San Francisco into a precarious situation. The secondary was already a weak spot on the team's defense and losing a Pro Bowl-caliber player was not likely to help.
Dahl had spent the previous four years playing for the 49ers' division rival and had totaled 238 tackles and four interceptions over his five-year career. In addition, he was familiar with San Francisco's offensive and defensive schemes, a fact that he made clear after joining the 49ers.
While Dahl may not have been the same caliber player that Goldson was, at least the 49ers had a decent and reliable replacement. Yet San Francisco was not finished addressing their safety needs.
As the 2013 NFL draft loomed near, the defense emerged as a top priority. The 49ers would be looking for long-term upgrades both along the defensive line as well as in the secondary. While Goldson's departure had been temporarily solved by Dahl's signing, San Francisco would be looking towards the draft as a means to bolster the position.
In addition, the 49ers needed to examine their situation at cornerback. Veteran corner Tarell Brown had emerged as arguably the best 49er corner in 2012 thanks in large part to the lackluster play of teammates Culliver and Rogers down the stretch. Would the 49ers look to upgrade the position via the draft? Only time would tell.
Entering the draft, San Francisco had 13 total picks to utilize. What was clear was that the 49ers did not need to use each of those picks but the added ammunition would provide the team with ample opportunity to trade up multiple times throughout the draft. In addition, there was a plethora of safeties and cornerbacks available in the 2013 draft and San Francisco would certainly target a few of them.
As it turned out, the 49ers targeted former Louisiana State University safety Eric Reid in the first round, trading up to the 18th slot to draft him.
Reid was set to become the future safety for San Francisco and would hopefully develop into the immediate replacement for the departed Goldson. The 49ers overall draft class earned an A-grade according to Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated and Reid topped the list.
Curiously however, San Francisco did not use one of its many early-round picks to select a cornerback. The team had to be well aware that its corners did not perform well during the playoffs the previous year and had to account for the fact that Brown would be entering a contract year in 2013. While they did select former Rutgers corner Marcus Cooper in the seventh round and added Darryl Morris and Lowell Rose as undrafted free agents, the draft did not provide San Francisco with a highly-touted prospect.
Before the draft, there were rumors that the 49ers were interested in Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. Yet any trade for the star cornerback would have been expensive and San Francisco's long-term interests were best suited elsewhere.
Instead, the 49ers looked for a cheaper option and elected to sign former Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a one-year, $1.775 million contract with no guaranteed money. Asomugha had three Pro Bowl seasons, including two First-Team All-Pro selections, with the Oakland Raiders before Philadelphia had brought him on board. With the Eagles, Asomugha's career collapsed and Philadelphia parted ways with the veteran after 2012.
San Francisco pounced on Asomugha, hoping to add veteran depth and competition at the dilapidated position. The move was a smart one for both sides. Asomugha would get to resurrect his career in a press-based defense which is something he enjoyed back in his days with the Raiders. The 49ers entered a low-risk, high-reward scenario, giving Asomugha a limited contract for only one year and no signing bonus.
If he worked out well, Asomugha would be a steal. If not, San Francisco could cut him at minimal expense.
As the team heading towards Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the secondary had been revamped. The first practices would provide a glimpse into how the preseason and regular season would pan out.
OTAs provided the first glimpses of just how San Francisco's secondary would look in the 2013 season. There were a number of position battles and storylines to keep an eye on.
One of those stories would be centered around the 49ers' first round draft pick Reid. How would he measure up during the preseason especially in competition with San Francisco's veteran acquisition Dahl?
Initially it appeared that Dahl was getting the upper hand with Reid struggling to learn the 49ers defense. As reported by Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Dahl was one of the few members of the 49ers secondary that shined during OTAs. He described this further by writing:
He was the starting free safety, and he had the best day of all of the 49ers’ defensive backs. Dahl almost picked off Colin Kaepernick twice. First, Kaepernick tried to fire a pass to Chad Hall in the end zone in a 7-on-7 drill. Hall was running straight down the middle of the field, Dahl read Kaepernick’s eyes and undercut the pass. Dahl had it in his hands but he bobbled it and it fell to the ground. Later, in an 11-on-11 drill, Kaepernick tried to hit Vernon Davis downfield, but Dahl read the play all the way and easily knocked the pass away. Again, he had the ball in his hands but he couldn’t hold onto it. (pressdemocrat.com)
On the other hand, Reid was showing signs typical of a rookie entering the league for the first time. Reid struggled with the fast-paced nature of NFL players and admitted that the transition from college to the professional level was going to be difficult. He elaborated in a recent interview:
It's fast. The veterans are here, they know the defense. The offensive guys know the offense and they're blazing. For me, it's trying to keep up, trying to get caught up to where they are mentality. That's the biggest thing for me, just knowing my plays, knowing my responsibilities and doing it. (via 49ers.com)
At the time, Dahl appeared destined to take over the starting job. What actually transpires during the regular season will be a direct result of Dahl and Reid's competition during training camp and the preseason. Obviously, the 49ers will want Reid to play an integral role sooner than later. Fortunately, Dahl can still serve as the immediate insurance policy.
While the starting free safety battle garnered much of the attention during OTAs, depth chart battles at cornerback were also worth noting.
Asomugha was one of the 49ers corners who had the best showing during OTAs, thanks in large measure to the absence of Brown who elected to spend the time working out in Texas. Despite the non-contact rule mandated during OTAs, Asomugha stated that he was already becoming comfortable in the press-based style of defense employed by San Francisco.
Ironically, Brown's absence would result in him forfeiting nearly two-thirds of his 2013 base salary as reported by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
Contracts aside, Asomugha performed as if he had something to prove. He must have known that he was a cheap commodity and any lack of execution would likely result in his quick dismissal. It was not too long into OTAs where Asomugha began performing much better than Culliver, who had gone through his own share of struggles during the same timeframe.
SF Gate columnist Kevin Lynch further describes Asomugha's drive and the faith that San Francisco's coaching staff put in him. He writes:
The decision to start Asomugha over Chris Culliver, even in an OTA practice, says something about how the coaches feel about Asomugha. Some speculated that the former All-Pro wouldn’t make it to training camp and the relatively inexpensive one-year contract suggests the 49ers could release him at any time. However, Asomugha showed well. Asomugha often latched on quickly to the receivers he was covering and he muscled them. However, he had difficulty sustaining coverage on longer plays, which isn’t surprising at age 31. (sfgate.com)
Asomugha's showing was perhaps the biggest storyline among San Francisco's corners during OTAs and into training camp. Yet there remain a number of key questions that are yet to be determined.
San Francisco attempted to add further competition at cornerback by trading for Tampa Bay cornerback Eric Wright. Yet when Wright failed his physical, the trade was nullified and the 49ers' corner situation remained much the same as it was before the attempted transaction.
While Asomugha made great strides in proving that he deserves a roster spot, there are still a number of other corners on the 49ers depth chart that are vying for a spot on the final roster.
Veterans Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox, who have almost no experience as starting corners remain in competition for depth at the position. Rookies Morris and Cooper are also working towards getting on the final 53-man roster.
Predictions for 2013
The position battle over starting free safety is the most interesting story developing out of San Francisco's preseason.
Will Reid earn the starting job over Dahl? If he can prove that he has made the majority of adjustments to the NFL-level, then there is no reason to assume he would not.
Reid is eyeing that opportunity and stated, "I don’t by any means expect to start from day one, but that’s a goal of mine" (via 49ers.com).
If those adjustments do not happen quick enough however, Dahl may get the nod. Surely the 49ers are hoping that Reid will be an impact player, but given their level of expectations in 2013, San Francisco will want to put the best team out on the field right away and may not be placing Reid into that position until he is fully ready.
Complicating the matter is the fact that Whitner is entering a contract year this season and is set to be a free agent after 2013. Whitner has publicly stated that he wants to remain a 49er, yet San Francisco may be taking a wait-and-see approach with their veteran safety in the upcoming season as reported by NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus.
If Whitner is re-signed after 2013 and Reid eventually gets his starting job, Dahl may be relegated to an immediate backup. If Whitner departs, it is plausible to assume Dahl switches over to strong safety in 2014. Exactly which scenario plays out remains to be seen.
While the situation at cornerback may not be as noteworthy, it is nothing less precarious.
Similar to Whitner, Brown is also entering a contract year. There are already rumors stating that Brown may walk after 2013 yet the talk, including his recent salary forfeiture, do not seem to hamper his desire to have an impactful season.
Brown stated in a recent interview:
There are always doubters and people who are naysayers about what you do and what you don’t do. I really don’t focus on that. The biggest thing for me is to focus on the 49ers in a positive way and represent myself in a positive way and represent my last name. That’s something that’s always been important to me and it’s something I live by. (via 49ers.com)
In either case, San Francisco is hoping for at least one more good year out of Brown. The rest of the corners provide a very different story and raise more questions.
Can Rogers, in the middle of a four-year, $29.25 million contract, live up to his lofty salary and play more like he did in 2011? It is possible that the 49ers may eventually cut him to save money at some point. Will Asomugha turn in the high-reward that San Francisco sought when they signed him earlier this year? How will rookies Morris and Cooper find spots on the roster and what impact, if any, will they have in 2013?
In addition, what can fans and coaches expect out of Culliver? His OTA struggles are already documented and he will need to put last year's playoff performance and Super Bowl media day comments behind him and show that he has what it takes to retain his role as a slot corner. If Culliver can do that and put his physical talents to use, then there is little reason to assume he would not thrive in coming years.
What is known is this: San Francisco has put added depth and competition in its backfield this year, something that did not exist to the same extent at the start of 2012. That alone provides motivation for each player to be better. In addition, two key players entering contract years may allow for individual motivation in order to cash in on a big contract in 2014, regardless whether or not it is with the 49ers.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the secondary will benefit from the recent upgrades and added depth to San Francisco's defensive line. If they can generate the pressure up front, life in the secondary should be that much easier.
Hopefully the changes made in the backfield will be enough to turn the 49ers secondary from a liability into an asset. Nobody within the team's organization wants a repeat of what happened late last season. Instead, San Francisco wants a dynamic and play-making defensive backfield capable of shutting down receiving options and generating turnovers.
It is a lofty hope, but given some of the changes and additions as of late, the 49ers are well on their way to ensuring that success.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.