The 49ers are currently the No. 2 defense in the league in total yards allowed, and they’re allowing the fourth-lowest number of passing yards per game (205.6) and the third-lowest QB rating (75.7). And that’s without a really strong pass rush, which means the secondary — a huge question mark coming into this season — has exceeded expectations.
So there’s sort of an “it ain’t broke” thing going on, but Brock signed a pretty sizable extension about a year ago for a reason. Yesterday I explored why the 49ers might go against popular wisdom and move Chris Culliver to the sideline in base and nickel situations once Brock returns, in order to keep Perrish Cox — the team’s best corner this season, and the fifth-best in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus — not just in the game, but where he’s most effective.
That would mean keeping Jimmie Ward as the slot/nickel corner, even though he had a rough game against the Chicago Bears in Week 2. That’s for two reasons: (1) Ward is someone they drafted in the first round and (2) Cox is better on the outside.
“The difference between what I play now and then is I’m more comfortable outside at corner. I didn’t learn nickel or inside stuff until I got here which was three years ago. But that actually helped me at the corner position, because I know where everybody is supposed to be at, so it helps me out a lot,” Cox recently said in an interview with CSN Bay Area’s Mindi Bach.
Today I asked Vic Fangio whether Cox’s ascendance this season has anything to do with moving to the outside after spending the last two years in the slot.
“It’s part of it. He was a really good corner in college and was drafted in the second round, I believe, by Denver as a corner/nickelback. And he’s got good instincts as a corner. This is his first opportunity, at least with us, to have extended action as a corner. You know, he’s played well as a corner for us in the preseason games the previous two seasons. But, then as the season came on, he never got much of a chance out there. We had other players. So, he’s gotten his opportunity and he’s taken full advantage of it,” Fangio said.
The case for Ward
“(Ward’s) getting better and better every week … he’s diligent. He’s a hard worker. He’s prideful. He’s competitive. And with those qualities, he’s going to get better and better every week. Does that mean he’s not ever going to get beat? No. Does that mean he’s going to have a game where he gives up some throws? No. But, he learns and he improves,” Fangio said.
Ward looked every bit the rookie he is against Brandon Marshall, but it sounded like Fangio appreciated Ward’s reaction after the fact.
“He’s an accountable guy. So, it was never well, it was tough, it was this or that. He took ownership of those plays. They were tough plays. He’s not the first guy that’s given up a play to that guy in particular, especially in that part of the field. And he learned from it and moved on.”
That led to a few follow-up questions about Ward from other reporters:
Q: Or do you see all those, watching those three plays, it looked like two of them were just outstanding plays that probably nobody could have defended. And one he kind of got out of position. How would you break those down?
Fangio: Well, the one in particular there was offensive pass interference but if they allow a guy that size to push off like they did, then it becomes even extremely more tough. I don’t remember the other one.
Q: Was that the one-handed catch?
Fangio: Yes. And no, when the ball was just on the 3-yard line and you’re playing run and pass and you’ve got a lean-headed guy on the run, he got beat.
Q: How has he done in the run aspect of his job?
Fangio: Good. He’s a good tackler. Very willing tackler. He’s aggressive. Likes to tackle. And don’t know that he has been tested a whole lot in that area. But, he’s done well.
Q: Is that something that a safety playing nickel is probably going to do better than a cornerback playing nickel?
Fangio: You would think so. You would think so. But, you’ve got to like to tackle and want to tackle. And he does.
What about Cully?
Fangio answered two questions about Culliver as well.
Q: CB Chris Culliver, he gave up a lot against the Cardinals deep ball down the left sideline I believe it was.
Q: Is he getting better at that as far as turning, knowing when to turn and locate the ball?
Fangio: He is. That play in particular, we didn’t have good pass rush on that play and he was in position, but just didn’t make the play. And late in the down, he’s got to find a way to make that. And that was a big play in that game.
If I had to bet money, my wager would be on Brock and Cox on the outside, with Ward in the slot after the bye week (or whenever Brock’s turf toe heals).