The folks at ProFootball Focus (PFF) released an interesting chart of the percentage of plays in which a safety lines up “in the box” — which they define as within eight yards of the line of scrimmage (LOS). Of all 32 teams, the 49ers ranked 31st, meaning that Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson rarely hovered around the LOS. No shockers there. With Patrick Willis, NaVarro Bowman, Justin Smith, et. al, there is little need for an “in the box” safety.

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The first-4 and last-4. Note where the 49ers’ divisional foes lie on this chart.

A breakdown of those 170 “in the box” snaps provides no real surprises either. As you’d expect, Whinter fulfills a strong majority of them.

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What does surprise is just how ineffective Whitner was in this role last season. Never the strong cover safety (as we’ve enumerated HERE and HERE), Whitner’s primary role on defense was thought to be his dominant run defense. But his “in the box” numbers suggest anything but.  As evidence, look no further than his 3.3 Stop %, which is the number of times relative to total snaps that a defender “stops” an offensive player from gaining either “40 percent of the required yards for another first down on first down,” “60 percent of the required yards for a first down on second down,” or “a first down on third or fourth down.”

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.

This of course begs the question: What is Whitner’s role on this defense?

Sure, he’s a veteran presence — particularly one that possess a high football IQ and deft communication skills. But the defense is literally teeming with veterans, some of whom possess that very same skill set. Given his struggles — especially in last year’s playoffs — does he maintain an uncontested starting spot because of his veteran qualities? Or is he still riding the coattails of this game changer from the 2011 NFL Playoffs?

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