A look over the 49ers">San Francisco 49ers defensive stats suggests a team in the middle.
The 49ers on defense ranked 16th in points (21.6 per game), 13th in yards allowed (327) and were middling in interceptions and fumbles, finishing 15th in turnover differential (minus-one). The standout stat was the three defensive touchdowns, but that didn’t come close to ranking atop the NFL.
Avid Niners fans know that those numbers do very little to represent the frustration they suffered as they watched winnable games evaporate in the final moments. There was Atlanta’s Matt Ryan driving the Falcons in the waning moments. There was Drew Brees moving the Saints across the Candlestick turf. Both games ended in gut-wrenching defeats, and those two games alone would have changed the 49ers fortunes considerably.
Of course, looking back is easy. Looking forward is the hard part. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio must construct a defense that performs to its abilities. More over, it must perform well at crucial moments to help the team succeed.
There’s no doubt that the Niners have worry spots in their defense. There’s no doubt that there’s also some high-grade NFL talent on the squad—from Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to Isaac Sopoaga and Dashon Goldson.
It’s up to the coaching staff to implement a scheme that enhances the chances for success, and then get the players to believe in it. It’s also up to the players to make the plays when they are there for the taking.
In that light, here are four defensive priorities for the 49ers in 2011.
According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers ranked 30th in the league in defending the opposition’s No. 1 wide receiver at 6.5 yards per play. What’s more, the Niners ranked 31st against the opposition’s No. 2 wide receiver.
It seems the 49ers can take pride in that they rank No. 1 against tight ends. But it has to be said that opposing offensive coordinators will abuse a defense’s weakness until it proves it can make plays.
Looking back at some of the box scores, you can see this was a glaring problem, none more so against the elite teams. In Green Bay, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver combined for 20 catches, 199 yards and three TDs.
Earlier in the year against Philadelphia, the Niners did well to hold DeSean Jackson to two catches and 24 yards, but No. 2 man Jeremy Maclin had 95 yards on six catches.
Of course, twice a year the Niners had to battle perhaps the game’s best WR, Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona. In the first meeting, they contained him with just 37 yards on four receptions. In the season finale, Fitzgerald erupted for 125 yards on 11 catches, but the Niners still won easily.
There was much talk about drafting an elite cornerback, or signing one in free agency. It may not be new personnel so much as coverage schemes and rushes. Either way, this is an area that has to improve in 2011.
At first look, you’d think that both the offense and the defense exert the same amount of energy. Not true. Defenses always tire faster than offenses, for a couple of reasons.
First, they’re reactive, so the moves to make stops have to come fast and hard. Offensive players know where they are going and thus achieve it more efficiently. Defenses have to fight through blocks to stop the ball.
Secondarily, however, is that once a running back or a receiver has the ball past the line of scrimmage, very few offensive players head downfield. There’s no need, so they save energy. Meanwhile, defensive linemen pick themselves up and hustle to the ball.
That’s why the longer a defense stays on the field, the worse it tends to play. In that sense, the 49ers ranked 24th in preventing third-down conversions at just under 40 percent. In other words, two out of five tries on third down by the opposition resulted in a new set of downs.
If the Niners knocked that down to one in four or even one in five, you’ll see much better defense and even a better offense (more chances). And probably more wins.
This is well-understood in the San Francisco Bay Area: The Niners have to get closer to the quarterback, and the first time they touch him can’t be during the post-game handshake.
All in all, the Niners had 36 sacks in 2010. But a deeper look at the stats brings out a bigger picture. The league leader in sacks in 2010 was Pittsburgh with 48. The second team in sacks was Green Bay with 47.
The Packers are known for their offense, thanks in part to their brilliant quarterback. Hardly anyone thinks of them as a strong defensive team. In fact, they may not be. But when their offense keeps giving them the league, the defense can key on one thing: stopping drives. Nothing stops a drive like a sack.
And that’s how the Packers ended up in the Super Bowl. And that’s how Aldon Smith ended up being the seventh player taken in the draft in April by the 49ers.
Underlying all the rankings in the NFL is the fact that some stats mean less than others. They are called “garbage time” stats. It often happens that when one team has a comfortable margin, it plays deep pass coverage, caring little about short throws underneath. The offense picks up the easy yards and even a few first downs, but that does little to change the outcome.
All it does is improve the stats, which thus lose some of their impact.
It isn’t so easy to find in the numbers, but one thing the Niners need to do is improve their randomness. By that I mean they have to start showing the unexpected—the blitz that no one picks up or a coverage scheme that the quarterback didn’t expect and ends up throwing an interception.
Easy plays can lead to a score if not change a game—perhaps a season. That comes down to the coaching staff and the players working together. And that’s why we watch.