The 49ers’ defense fell apart in the Super Bowl. Not many people can argue it didn’t, and I certainly won’t try. They allowed Joe Flacco and his band of mighty men to go off on them, and lots of people are singling that group out as the reason the 49ers lost their first Super Bowl in franchise history. So many are calling for a complete retooling in San Francisco’ secondary now, and it seems as if some of the reconstruction has already started. Dashon Goldson has gone to the Buccaneers (and gotten paid a king’s ransom), so the 49ers are shopping for safeties to replace him. Charles Woodson was in Santa Clara today, Ed Reed may stop by, Louis Delmas is coming … changes are inevitable in center field.
But what about the cornerbacks? Some fans called for Chris Culliver to leave San Francisco forever after his unfortunate interview on the Artie Lange Show and his equally unfortunate performance in the Super Bowl. Carlos Rogers certainly came back to earth this season. Somehow, some way, Tarell Brown was the 49ers’ best cover corner in 2012. But to say the 49ers are in bad shape at the position of cornerback is wrong.
The offseason is all about prioritizing the team’s needs, and the 49ers have some. There are immediate holes at safety and second tight end with Goldson and Delanie Walker gone. They replaced Isaac Sopoaga with Glenn Dorsey Wednesday, but their defensive line isn’t done. And while Anquan Boldin is a nice addition, lord knows San Francisco can never use too many wide receivers. The 2011 NFC Championship proved as much.
But in Brown, Culliver and Rogers, their starting cornerbacks are pretty much set.
Don’t believe me? The regular season proved it.
— San Francisco was 11th in completion percentage-against at 59.4 and 4th in total passing yards allowed with 3203.
— They were 6th in terms of passer rating-against at 78.0 and tied for 7th in passing touchdowns allowed with 19.
— They were tied with the Broncos for 3rd in total passing yards allowed per game at 200.
— They were 2nd in passing third down conversions allowed with 71 and tied for 7th in total passing first downs allowed with 178.
— They were 2nd in passing yards per attempt allowed at 6.1. The Steelers held the top spot by only .1 yards.
If passing yards per attempt is the holy grail of quarterback statistics, then yards per attempt-against should hold equal value for a secondary. The 49ers excelled in that category.
So where did the 49ers lack? We know their run defense took a step back from what it was in 2011, but not nearly as much as their pass rush did. San Francisco was tied for 11th in total sacks with 38 (2.375 per game). The top teams — Denver at St. Louis — both had 52. They averaged 3.0 quarterback hits per game and 11.6 quarterback hurries during the regular season.
Questions started to arise about the 49ers’ lack of pass rush early in the season, but we know when it really disappeared. The difference Justin Smith’s injury made to the entire defense was visible between the first and second halves of the Week 15 game against the Patriots. Even when Smith returned for the playoffs, he was a shell of the pass rusher he was when healthy, and the 49ers’ secondary paid the price:
Divisional Round: Aaron Rodgers passed for 257 yards (57 above average) and two touchdowns against them in the divisional round. He had a quarterback rating of 91.5 (13.5 above average) and a yards per attempt average of 6.59 (.48 above average).
The 49ers’ pass rush graded out at +0.1 on Pro Football Focus. They accumulated one sack (1.375 below average), one quarterback hit (2.06 below average) and 17 hurries (5.4 below average).
NFC Championship: Matt Ryan passed for 396 yards (196 above average) and three touchdowns against them in the NFC Championship game. He had a quarterback rating of 114.8 (36.8 above average) and a yards per attempt average of 9.42 (3.32 above average).
The pass rush graded out at -0.4. They accumulated one sack (1.375 below average), five quarterback hits (2.0 above average) and 10 hurries (1.6 below average).
Super Bowl: Joe Flacco passed for 287 yards (87 above average) and three touchdowns against them in the Super Bowl. He had a quarterback rating of 124.2 (46.2 above average) and a yards per attempt average of 8.7 (2.6 above average).
The pass rush graded out at -4.1. They accumulated two sacks (.375 below average), six quarterback hits (3.0 above average) and 10 hurries (1.6 below average).
The real culprit of the 49ers’ late- and postseason deficiencies is clear: pass rush makes the secondary look better, and the pass rush was absent. While the quarterback hits were there, the hurries were not. A hurry forces a quarterback out of their comfort zone and into a bad throw. With this in mind, it’s no wonder the 49ers’ secondary fell apart the way it did.
The solution to the 49ers’ secondary problems may involve staying confident in the guys already on the roster and increasing quarterback pressure in 2013. While a void exists at free safety with Goldson gone, it’s the only pressing need in the secondary. The 49ers’ corners are intact, and better than you think.