4 Predictions About the San Francisco 49ers' Secondary

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IAugust 17, 2011

4 Predictions About the San Francisco 49ers' Secondary

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    In light of the San Francisco 49ers finishing 24th in pass defense last year, thanks in part to a secondary that regularly gave up big plays, improvement in this area is a crucial element for success in 2011.

    But it has to be said that perhaps no part of pro football is more misunderstood than secondary play. It may not look like that is the case from the stands. The players are easy to identify because they play in space and are often involved in one-on-one situations.

    Only a few—coaches and players—know what the defense had planned to do on any play. Pass coverages, blitz schemes and different “packages” of five and six defensive backs are all designed to attack certain elements of the offense. More to the point the defense often tries to disguise its intent.

    Coverages like “man-under” and bracketing (where two defenders take sides of a particular player) are intended to take away one player or even a certain side of the field.

    To the fan in the stands, and even to color commentators, these coverages can give the appearance of someone failing on coverage when it wasn’t that player’s duty.

    Example: A cornerback is pressing a wideout in “man-under” with his teammate at safety tasked with taking away anything deep or “over the top.” The cornerback does his job, trailing the receiver to take away the break-off moves. But if the receiver keeps running downfield and the safety fails to adjust, it can look like the cornerback let the receiver go for an easy touchdown. In fact, it was the safety’s fault.

    Such are the complexities of secondary play; not all is what it looks like. Here are five predictions for the 49er secondary in 2011.

New Personnel Equals Less Blown Calls

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    There was no doubt the performance of Nate Clements had fallen off. He was an excellent tackler when in position, but in pass defense he often was a step late. His play certainly didn’t justify is contract, which is why he got released.

    With that, the 49er front office got aggressive. They signed cornerback Carlos Rogers and safeties Madieu Williams and Donte Whitner. Shawntae Spencer is the other starting cornerback, but they drafted CB Chris Culliver in the third round. They have returning corners Phillip Adams and Tramaine Brock to go along with safeties Reggie Smith, Dashon Goldson and Taylor Mays.

    Not all are going to stay on the team. No doubt defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will test these players with different coverage schemes. Perhaps the biggest addition was Williams and Whitner, veterans who are capable of making adjustments and communicating it so all understand and then perform. More than anything, it seems that’s why the veteran safeties were brought in.

    Safeties are the quarterbacks of the defense; located well off the line in the center of the field, they can see the entire formation. Thus they often make audible calls right before the snap on, say, whether they will or will not be able to help a cornerback on deep coverage.

    The worst plays for the 49ers in 2011 often had a defender well off a receiver, and at times the gap was so large it made you wonder if it was bad communication—a blown coverage due to someone not hearing the change before the snap—rather than poor physical effort.

    This will change in 2011.

Challenge the Corners

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    Coaches call it “playing chess” in their effort to disguise coverages and blitzes. They do it to get an edge on the offense. A confused offense often makes mistakes.

    Before such a plan can be installed, coaches have to decide if a lot of different looks and coverage plans are needed. Teams that don’t have the personnel to match up with an opposing receiver like Larry Fitzgerald will often try to hide how and when they add extra coverage.

    But constantly changing coverages can also confuse the defense and lead to miscommunication and  blown coverage. The ideal situation is to have superior personnel who can handle the opposing receivers in man or simple zone coverages. But in the NFL, that rarely happens.

    Fangio will be testing his corners in particular during the preseason to see if they can provide solid man-to-man coverage. If so, that allows the safeties more freedom to support the run or even blitz. Rogers and Spencer and the others will get their work in prior to September. How they perform will tell a lot towards what Fangio can do with the defense.

Less Coverage Time

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    It’s a cliché that no quarterback throws well with a linebacker or defensive tackle sitting on his chest. In short, rushing the quarterback is the most vital part of pass defense.

    Those who follow the game say that 50 percent of an NFL quarterback's throws come “under duress.” That means with someone a split second away from contact or with vision obstructed. Sometimes QBs can’t even step as they throw. All of this leads to an advantage to the defense.

    First-round draft pick Aldon Smith in his first game gave glimpses of being able to give the Niners a solid presence “off the edge,” meaning around or through an offensive tackle. Having one player who is a constant threat to get to the QB is a big advantage to a defense. We may not see it in the preseason, but if Smith starts to get double-teamed, watch for Fangio to provide counter measures.

    Players like Justin Smith and Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson give Fangio a lot of bullets to fire when the offense is focused on Smith. That should mean less time for quarterbacks to throw, and a rushed quarterback is hardly as good as a relaxed, unhurried quarterback.

All-Season Evolution

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    While the preseason opener featured a 49er offense seemingly incapable of picking up blitzes, it has to be said that the first-team defense played very well. The pass coverage was good. Saints quarterbacks often had to check down to his second and third receiver, and often he did that as he was pushed out of the pocket. It’s a very positive sign.

    While the Saints defense played at a higher level, which is one of the benefits New Orleans gets in its home games in the Superdome, the 49er performed nearly as well. They had no field-position advantage and yet forced the Saints to punt four times.

    But it has to be said that with the lockout, which limited contact between players and coaches, the 49ers (and other teams for that matter) will find themselves constantly fine-tuning their defenses throughout the season.

    That often is the case in the NFL. Injuries, the development of new players, a change in schemes can alter how a defense evolves in the four-month NFL season. In both personnel and plan, no team remains unchanged from Week 1 to Week 17. But it seems that Fangio and the 49er defensive coaching staff have a good start in creating a threatening, creative defense.