San Francisco 49ers: The curious case of the 49ers pass defense

Last year, the San Francisco 49ers secondary was easily the worst in football. However, upgrades and developments could brew a change in the bay.

It is no secret how historically bad the San Francisco 49ers pass defense was in 2018. According to my preseason rankings, the 49ers came away with the third-ranked pass defense in the NFC West.

Needless to say, there were some major doubts as to how productive this part of the defense could be.

After Week One, fans and evaluators are left scratching their heads as to what this group really has. Bolstered by that aforementioned pass defense, the 49ers were able to take down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-17, in large part to two interception return touchdowns during the game.

Is this type of performance an apparition or a sign of things to come? That’s the challenge. Hence it is important to realize what this means for the future of the team, NFC West and NFL. 

The Not So Great

The 2018 version of the San Francisco 49ers pass defense was arguably the worst of recent memory.

Aside from allowing 3,959 passing yards and 35 touchdowns, they were only able to muster 2 interceptions on the season while allowing a 63.5% completion rate to opposing passers. Combine those 2 interceptions with 7 fumble recoveries, the defense managed to muster a laughable nine total turnovers to their credit.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the 49ers offense in comparison turned the ball over 37 times. That -28 turnover margin is not going to win many football games. And it clearly didn’t, as the 49ers ended their 2018 campaign with a 4-12 record, finishing third in the NFC West. It clearly couldn’t get any worse for the 49ers pass defense heading into 2019.

As a whole, the secondary stayed largely intact. This begs the question, just how much can this group improve? 

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The Encouraging 

The 2019 NFL season got off to about as good a start as any 49ers fan could have hoped for.

Their opening week matchup came against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense that had quite a bit of hype about it coming out of preseason. With the addition of long time offensive mastermind Bruce Arians as head coach, the Buccaneers have high hopes to revitalize the once promising career of Jameis Winston.

Winston is definitely in no short supply of offensive weapons. The 49ers had some tough assignments across the board with Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, and promising youngsters in tight end O.J. Howard and second-year wide receiver Chris Godwin.

The matchups did not look favorable for the 49ers on the outside looking in. Thankfully, that’s why you don’t win football games on paper.

Chris Godwin was the most productive of the three options, collecting 3 receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown. He played well but still only managed to make good on half of his six targets. Howard and Evans didn’t have great days. Howard recorded just four receptions for 32 yards with a fumble to boot. Evans was surprisingly the quietest of the three, recorded just 2 receptions for 28 yards on his five targets.

The Buccaneers group was frustrated mightily by a group led by former Seattle Seahawks all pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman made the most of his chances during the game, recording his first interception return for a touchdown since 2013.

Fellow cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon joined in the fun with a pick six of his own.

As a whole, the defense allowed Jameis Winston to complete 20 of 36 passes (55.6%) for 194 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. The team also had eight pass breakups of the sixteen misfires from Winston. Those three interceptions were one more than the 49ers 2018 team total.

It was a very promising start for the group who hopes to keep that type of play up for the entirety of the 2019 season. 

The Ultimate Wildcard

It wasn’t long ago Jason Verrett was thought to be the next big thing at cornerback for the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers.

The former first round selection out of TCU, Verret has always been considered a phenomenal talent at the position. He has flashed that potential every time he has stepped foot on the field.

The problem is, he just doesn’t get that opportunity to step on the field at a high enough rate. Over his five seasons with the Chargers, Verrett missed an astounding 55 games due to injury, including all 16 games for the team in 2018.

He signed with the 49ers this offseason, for a modest one year deal worth 3.6 million dollars. A low-risk signing for a player who is still just 28 years of age. Can Verrett be depended on for this team? I doubt it, but a guy can hope. Verrett sits as the wildcard for this group.

If he is able to stay healthy and contribute to the degree he is capable, it could completely change the complexion of the 49ers secondary

2019’s Best Case Scenario

Here is the optimist’s point of view. Richard Sherman is going to continue his play from week one, presented the big time play and leadership that allowed him to be so coveted in his early games with the Seattle Seahawks.

That Legion of Boom mystique then begins to rub off on third-year pro Ahkello Witherspoon. This, of course, instantly morphs Witherspoon into the playmaking boundary cornerback the 49ers thought they were getting when he was coming out of the University of Colorado.

A fully healthy Jason Verrett allows for the pass defense to be that much more dangerous, seeing reps both outside and in the slot. He is able to make several huge plays, eventually vying for a potential comeback player of the year award.

Mixing into the nickel equation, K’Waun Williams provides some solid reps in nickel. This allows the 49ers to be even more versatile against spread offenses, providing some good matchups.

At the safety position, strong safety Jaquiski Tart is able to put together a full season of play. He is able to provide a breakout season, putting his name into a category of future studs at his position. Not only does his ability to play near the line of scrimmage help the run defense, but he is also able to show some nice ability to match up against tight ends in man to man coverage.

In the best case scenario, Jimmie Ward provides some needed range on the backend. He is able to provide some of what made him a first-round selection coming out of Northern Illinois.

With these ideal developments, the strength of the front seven will also be huge. The pass rush will be in full supply, while second-year linebacker Fred Warner cements himself as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. 

The Likely Conclusion

Let’s dig into a quick definition of Occam’s razor for the readers in the back. Basically, when evaluating two potential outcomes of an event, the most likely outcome is the right one.

That is what we are going to use to explain this Week One performance from the 49ers pass defense. We will chalk it up to an illusion of future success against a team breaking in a new head coach and offensive philosophy. That has to be it! They caught the Buccs at the perfect time. 

Will they end up being as bad as last season? No way, but I am not buying high on them right now.

They are improved but there are too many question marks (Richard Sherman’s age, Jason Verrett’s health, Jimmie Ward being serviceable) to believe that they have turned such a large corner. 

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