Young San Francisco 49ers Defense Exposed in Crushing Loss to Steelers

Grant Cohn@@grantcohnFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) makes a catch past San Francisco 49ers free safety Eric Reid (35) in the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — The San Francisco 49ers defense allegedly showed up for the 43-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Week 2.

The Niners defense definitely showed up before the game—I can confirm that. I could see them stretching and warming up for hours. They looked outstanding. No one stretches like the Niners defense.

I’m pretty sure I saw them on the field during the first half. Then again, I’m not so sure. The Steelers offense didn’t seem to notice them. Pittsburgh scored 29 points before halftime.

Ben Roethlisberger finished the game with a passer rating of 155.8 (158.3 is perfect). He never seemed to break a sweat. His receivers were wide-open, and he could take as long as he wanted to throw. The Steelers looked like they were doing a walkthrough.

Roethlisberger threw six incomplete passes all game. He also threw six passes that gained at least 20 yards—and three touchdown passes.

“Why so many breakdowns defensively, especially in the secondary?” a reporter asked Niners head coach Jim Tomsula after the game.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

 “We obviously don’t need to be letting people throw things over our head,” Tomsula said, stating the obvious.

Kenneth Acker, the Niners’ No. 2 cornerback, a second-year player who missed last season due to injury, covered Brown for most of the game. Brown finished with nine catches for 195 yards and a touchdown.

“A lot of those plays, (Acker) wasn’t on his own,” Tomsula said. Meaning double coverage couldn’t stop Brown—that’s how bad the Niners secondary was.

Cut to Acker at his locker. What happened, Kenneth?

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

“It was a learning experience for myself,” he said.

What did you learn?

“(Brown)’s a quick receiver,” Acker said. “It was my first time playing against a guy of that caliber. It was quality work out there. I feel like I won some battles. I lost some battles. I learned—that’s the best thing about it.”

In other words, 49ers fans, don’t think of Sunday’s embarrassment against the Steelers as a loss. Think of it as a learning experience for Acker, who says he won some battles. He certainly lost the war.

In his defense, he never should have covered Brown. Acker is a promising young corner who had no chance against one of the NFL's best wide receivers. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini should have protected Acker and made Tramaine Brock cover Brown the entire game.

Afterward, I asked Brock why he didn’t cover Brown.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

“I’m not sure,” Brock said. “We just had a game plan. Our game plan was our regular defense that we’ve been doing in OTAs and training camp.”

“What were the issues with the pass defense?” a reporter asked.

“It was just poor execution,” Brock said. “We’ve got to come out here, and we’ve got to execute. It was on us. They made plays, but we’ve got to come out and execute.

Anything specific?

“Our calls from last week, we came in with the same type of mentality,” he said. “I think they just had our number for our calls. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to make plays.”

“So Pittsburgh scouted your defense well?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding sternly.

Let’s be real clear. Brock said Mangini used many of the same plays he called last week, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were ready for them; they had a plan to defeat them. The Steelers totally dissected his scheme.

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 14: Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini and Linebackers Coach Clancy Pendergast of the San Francisco 49ers talk with the linebackers on the field during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Levi Stadium on September 14, 201
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Mangini may have coached with Bill Belichick, but he is no Belichick. Not no way, not no how.

Under previous defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the Niners defense never allowed more than 42 points in a game. Mangini’s defense gave up 43 in game No. 2 as the Niners defensive coordinator. Maybe he’s a fast worker. We’re in new territory.

For what it’s worth, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman didn’t blame Mangini for the loss. Bowman blamed the inexperienced players around him.

“We used to have eight or nine vets on our defense,” Bowman said. “I want to see how we respond to this…We’re a young team…It’s my job and the vets’ job that’s on this team to get the young guys ready and prepared.”

“How do you feel you played today?” I asked Bowman, who struggled in coverage and seemed slow any time he changed directions.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

“I made the plays that I could,” he said. “They threw the ball over my head several times. I can’t do anything about that. But I got the right calls made. I did my job.”

Not his fault either, apparently.

Is there a lesson the defense can take from this annihilation?

“You’ve got to come play every single week,” Bowman said, “knowing that the success and the celebration is over right after the game and you focus on the next opponent.”

Coming to play would be a start.

All quotations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow @grantcohn


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.