A rather cursory glance at the final NFL statistics did much to explain why a team as talented as the San Francisco 49ers failed to make the 2010 playoffs despite playing in arguably the weakest division the league has seen in years.
For a team that brags in its media kit about its strengths against the run (second stingiest on first down in 2010 at 3.39 yards per attempt), little is said that the defense ranked 30th in completion percentage (65 percent of passes thrown at San Francisco were completed).
The 49ers finished 23rd in yards allowed through the air (3,697), 26th in offensive pass rating allowed (90.0) and 23rd in yards per pass attempt against (7.2). Opponents converted on third down just over 38 percent of the time, compared to 31 percent for the league-leading Giants. Finally, the 49ers finished in the middle of the league in interceptions (15 compared to league-best 25 for New England).
These numbers provide little context singularly but together they set up a scenario that state 2010 opponents found it to be rather easy to not only complete passes but also to gain yards.
That’s why new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s review of the 49er defense, and the secondary in particular, carry a great deal of weight. If the 49ers are to improve in 2011, pass defense is going to play a critical role. Here are five predictions for the San Francisco secondary in 2011.
Note: All quotes from Fangio were obtained by the SF 49ers media site from a session transcribed Aug. 22, 2011.
Going into the third game of preseason, it appears there are four players vying for the two cornerback spots. Free-agent Carlos Rogers and returning starter Shawntae Spencer would seem to be the favorites, but nagging injuries reduced Rogers’ practice time last week, and Spencer has been battling a touchy hamstring. At the same time, improved play from Tramaine Brock and Tarrell Brown have turned the position into a highly competitive one. Third-round pick Chris Culliver also has been getting plenty of reps.
“Well, that will sort itself out once we get everyone healthy and playing, but we did like the way they both played,” Fangio said. “We did have a couple plays thrown out in the flat [vs. Oakland] there at the corner position that should have been defended better. There were more mental errors than physical errors, but I think that all remains to be seen. Both Brock and Brown are definitely in the hunt, all the way from being starters to being in stunt packages.”
Last week in the final training camp session in Santa Clara, Rogers played the slot receiver in nickel situations. We won’t know the overall effectiveness of the secondary until maybe a month into the regular season. Perhaps the biggest test will come Oct. 2 at Philadelphia. But it’s a safe bet that there will be plenty of players in and out of various spots as Fangio finds the best combinations for the various pass defense packages.
One of the surprises of last year’s struggling defense was the play of safety Reggie Smith, the four-year vet out of Oklahoma. He’s recovering from a 2010 injury, but his play last year was a salve to the disappointment found in Taylor Mays, who was traded this week to Cincinnati.
Smith’s return to go along with the additions of Madieu Williams and Donte Whitner give the Niners a strong core of safeties, the position from which keys a successful secondary.
“[Reggie] is definitely in the mix there for us at the safety position. We feel good with Whitner, him, [Dashon] Goldson, Williams, and [C.J.] Spillman. We feel like we’ve got five safeties there that can play in the NFL. Some of them have great special teams value over the others, so if we have to keep four, that will be a hard decision. If we keep five, I think they will all be different pieces that we will use during the season.”
Though the secondary has to carry much of the blame for the poor 2010 pass defense performance, it helps to have help from other parts of the defense. Right now, the 49ers appear very strong at linebacker in their 3-4 defense that allows for more stunts from various players. In other words, it looks like the 49ers will have more ways to pressure the passer and take the pressure off the secondary.
In 1995, Carolina’s second season in the league, Fangio served as defensive coordinator for a unit that allowed only five TDs and 56 points after halftime the entire year. This suggests that Fangio is something of a wizard when it comes to making adjustments. But then, that Panther team had Lamar Lathon, Sam Mills and Kevin Greene starting at linebackers.
This year’s 49er team has All Pro Patrick Willis in the middle, with Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks and NaVarro Bowman rounding out the squad. So far this preseason, this unit has been effective not only against the run but also harassing quarterbacks. Is this unit capable of being one of the best Fangio has seen in his career?
“I can’t compare them to that group because that group was special in itself, but they’re progressing well,” Fangio said. “Obviously, Patrick Willis is very established in what he’s done in the league and we expect him to continue that play and even improve on it. But everybody else that you’re seeing out there is unproven. NaVorro has never been a starter, Parys has been a sometime starter and Brooks really hasn’t ever been a full time starter, so to go to that extreme already is probably not warranted, but we’re happy with the way they’re playing as individuals and as a unit, but that’s the extent of it right now.”
Dom Capers was the head coach in Carolina in 1995. Capers is the defensive coordinator in Green Bay, whose looks on defense helped the Packers field one of the best teams in the league against the pass.
The Packers last year led the league in opposition pass rating of 67.1 and were third-best in net yards allowed per game at 194. Having opponents wondering what your coverage is and where the focus of the rush is coming gives the defense a big edge. Right now it seems that the 49ers are slowly but surely gaining more and more complexity to their schemes.
“I don’t know if simplified is the right word, maybe inserted at a slower pace than what we normally would have,” Fangio said. “So this week in particular, a lot of teams are into game planning for the third preseason game or looking at early opponents. We’re still viewing it as we’re still in training camp for another week defensively and still have some packages and calls we’d like to put in. We’re going to work on that this week. So, it’s slowed the process down, but not simplified.”
“I thought our backups came in and played better than they did previously in New Orleans,” Fangio said. “Last week, we gave up a couple scores after we started making changes, and this week [against Oakland] we didn’t do that. I thought we played solid from the start to the finish more than we did last week.”