On Monday, I called into question Donte Whitner’s uncontested position on the 49ers defense, citing not his deficiencies in coverage — which have been obvious — but his struggles in run defense.
As I wrote, “Among eligible safeties, Whitner ranks 44th of 55 in Stop % while within eight yards of the LOS, placing him among the Charles Godfreys and Antoine Betheas of the NFL. In total Stop %, Whitner faired even worse, ranking 48th with a 1.6.”
These stats –as obviously shocking as they are — clearly paint Whitner in a less-than-flattering light, and it is reason enough to dispel his reputation as a staunch run defender, or so I thought. Some of us were none-to-pleased with this, arguing that Whitner “held down strong safety perfectly last season especially in 2013,” as one Facebook commenter so eloquently put it.
As to how Whitner held down his position perfectly in 2012 is not immediately clear, nor is how he was able to do so in the 2013 season, which is still roughly three months away from starting. But, alas, if this commenter’s Gray’s Sports Alamanac tells him that Whitner will be perfect in 2013, who am I question it?
In any case, thanks to commenter, Chris K, I think we have an answer as to why Whitner — in spite of his weaknesses — maintains his uncontested starting position. Said Chris K, “His main role in this defense is “garbage man” … Whitner is actually at the top of the league in making tackles on his teammates’ man.”
According to Football Outsiders, Whitner had the 5th most “clean-up” tackles, which are those tackles that “clean-up” the mistakes made by teammates. These tackles can include plays in which another player was in coverage, or when an offensive player found a “hole” in the zone or was left uncovered.
When scheme deficiencies are eliminated (that is, when removing “hole in zone” and “uncovered” players), we are left with only those plays in which a defender failed. It is here that Whitner’s ultility becomes obvious.
His 20 pure “clean-up” tackles leads suggest there is no better safety than Whitner when it comes to compensating for the failures of his teammates. As such, Whitner is a safety in the truest sense of the word. Had he not made these “clean-up” tackles, well, then the 49ers defense probably gives up much more than their 17.1 points per game average — which was good for 2nd in the NFL, by the way. So while Whitner might struggle mightily in coverage, he more than compensates for that in other areas.