The 49ers hoped to lean on defense at the outset of their rebuild under new head man Jim Tomsula, their former defensive line coach. But the offseason mass exodus of defensive talent — including stalwarts such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland — has reduced that hope to a pipedream.
For every step forward such as in Week 5, when the defense limited the Green Bay Packers to one touchdown, there has been one giant step back. The most recent collapse came in a 30-27 loss in New York last week, when the group allowed the Giants to march 82 yards in 61 seconds for the decisive touchdown. The drive that was kept alive by the inability to
intercept a catchable pass in the red zone.
“It’s crazy the talent we have in the locker room,” said frustrated tackle Quinton Dial, whose unit will try to bounce back against the Baltimore Ravens today. “It’s crazy.”
The numbers suggest otherwise. The defense ranks 31st or next to last in yards allowed, 29th in third down percentage and 28th in points allowed in the league. It has only three
interceptions and yet to recover a fumble.
Some of the problems could be traced to unfamiliarity with the system, one that new coordinator Eric Mangini put in place last summer. That often has been the case in the secondary, where rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt and second-year safety Jimmy Ward have taken on
greater responsibilities of late, Tartt in the dime defense and Ward in the slot.
Mangini wouldn’t venture a guess as to how long it would take the players to reach a comfort zone in the 3-4 scheme.
“I don’t know if there’s a set timeline on it,” Mangini said. “Every time I’ve been part of a transition, it’s different for different teams. Been a part of quite a few, and I wouldn’t say that’s there one overriding pattern to it.”
Even veterans such as NaVorro Bowman have struggled at times, especially in the pass game. Thus far, opponents have completed 21 of 22 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns when he’s the primary defender, according to Pro Football Focus.
Last weekend Bowman and safety Antoine Bethea were beaten for the final points, although it took a well-placed throw and an impressive catch to do so.
“It’s like all of our pass coverage — there have been times where it’s been really good and outstanding, and then there have been times where it hasn’t been what we wanted,” Mangini said. “But I can tell you that’s not unique to NaVorro.”
After an extended layoff to rehabilitate a major knee injury, Bowman has played on 96 percent of the defensive snaps to date.
“Yeah, we’re looking at those things,” Tomsula said. “We’re looking at monitoring reps. But Bow by no means was the reason for all of our … I mean, I don’t want that (criticism) going there. We’ve got to get better, all of us.”
One option is to work newcomer Gerald Hodges into the mix. At Penn State, Hodges began his career at safety before he was moved to linebacker, where he played behind Bowman and Sean Lee, now with the Dallas Cowboys.
“You love guys that can run and cover and have the versatility to go up and play with guards and deal with the big guys,” Mangini said.
The defense also could benefit from the likely return of linebacker Ahman Brooks, who last week was unavailable because of a death in his family.
At the same time, a negative
play is not always the result of a
singular breakdown, as Mangini pointed out. Effective defense is the result of a front line, linebackers and secondary that execute as a cohesive unit.
“All that stuff works together,” Mangini said. “It’s how long do you have to cover for, how quickly is the rush getting there? Is the rush affecting the quarterback? Are we able to bat any balls? All that stuff ties in, because the amount of time you have to cover … There’s a set route, and then there’s a route that happens after things break down, which makes it harder.”