49ers First Half Grades: Defense and Special Teams

The 49ers reached the midpoint of their season. That, coupled with the team having its bye this week, makes this a perfect time to reflect on the first half of the season. Here are the defensive grades for the first half.

Defensive Line: A+

Led by Nick Bosa, the 49ers defensive line has been one of the most dominant in all of football. 

While Bosa’s 8.5 sacks are tied for the NFL lead, San Francisco’s defense is tied for the second most sacks with 3.3 per game.

Following Bosa is Samson Ebukam, who has 3.5 sacks on the season, along with Charles Omenihu and rookie Drake Jackson who each have three apiece. 

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Charles Omenihu (94) lines up during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Falcons won 28-14. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

In total, seven 49ers defensive linemen have recorded at least one sack.

San Francisco’s defensive line hasn’t dominated only against the pass. This group has also played a significant role in the Niners defense, allowing the fewest yards per rush attempt.

Arik Armstead was sidelined for most of the first half by foot and ankle injuries. The same goes for Javon Kinlaw, who had to be placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. 

Kevin Givens and Hassan Ridgeway have stepped up to anchor the defensive interior in their absence. Each has recorded a sack, and five of Givens’ 14 tackles have been for a loss. 

Linebackers: A

Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw form arguably the best linebacker duo in the league. They have played a large part in the 49ers strong defensive start to the season and lead the team in tackles with 62 and 58, respectively.

Warner is on pace to allow a lower completion percentage than he did in 2020 when he was named First Team All-Pro. His missed tackle percentage of only 1.6 is by far the best in his career. 

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) lines up during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Falcons won 28-14. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Azeez Al-Shaair, Oren Burks, and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles have all been solid when given their opportunities. 

Defensive Backs: B+

The offseason addition of Charvarius Ward significantly upgraded the 49ers cornerback play. The signing of Tashon Gipson has matched its significance to the defense’s performance during training camp. 

Ward, Gipson, and Talanoa Hufanga have transformed the San Francisco secondary. 

San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) lines up during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Falcons won 28-14. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

The trio and Emmanuel Moseley recorded six interceptions over the first half, nearly tying the defenses total from a season ago. Three of those interceptions have come from Hufanga, giving the second-year safety the team lead.

The four interceptions by Hufanga and Gipson are the most the 49ers have seen from the safety position since the arrival of Kyle Shanahan. It is also the most for a San Francisco team since Antoine Bethea, and Eric Reid combined to record seven interceptions in 2014.

Special Teams: C-

San Francisco made improving special teams a priority last offseason. 

The top free agent signings, Oren Burks, George Odum, and Ray-Ray McCloud were all brought in with this goal in mind. In addition, Brian Schneider was hired to replace Richard Hightower as the coordinator. 

It hasn’t gone as expected.

San Francisco has seen two field goals blocked, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The kickoff coverage unit gave up three returns of over 40 yards. 

The lone bright spot was the performance of McCloud against the Rams in week eight. Last Sunday, McCloud recorded returns of 39 and 27 yards to bring his average for the year up to 19.7, a slight improvement over 2021. 

Coaches: A

Apart from the loss to Kansas City, DeMeco Ryans has been excellent in his second season as the defensive coordinator.

It took until week six for the 49ers defense to allow a touchdown in the first quarter. 

The only downside for the defense has been an inability to get a stop once things go sideways. 

Against Chicago in week one, the defense allowed the Bears into the endzone on three straight possessions. In week three, despite a heroic effort, they could not hold on to a five-point lead in the fourth quarter. Facing a strong Falcons attack, the defense could not get off the field late in the second quarter and allowed a touchdown on Atlanta’s first possession after the half. The coup de gras came in week seven when Kansas City scored touchdowns on six of its first eight possessions. 

Last week in Los Angeles started much the same as the Rams scored on back-to-back possessions to take a 14-10 lead into halftime. 

The second half was a different story. The 49ers defense stood up and held their NFC West rivals scoreless in the second half. 

For the first time since week five, the San Francisco defense looked like itself as they controlled the line of scrimmage and finished the game off in dominating fashion.

If Ryans can keep his group playing at a high level in the second half, the 49ers could play late into January again. And who knows, maybe even early February.

This article has 25 Comments

  1. Jack – I don’t comment much here anymore, but I do read your articles. I must say you have taken over and have done a really good job.

  2. Pretty much agree with all these grades. The Special Teams trouble is a real head scratcher. They have good players and scheme seems to be solid. Not sure why they haven’t performed as well as expected.

    On the defense, I think this defense still has a chance to be special. Losing Armstead and Kinlaw has been a significant blow to productivity. I’m at the point of thinking Kinlaw will be one of those supremely gifted athletes that will never realize his full potential due to injuries. With Kinlaw and Armstead in the game, the 49ers have the best defense in the NFL, bar none. Not sure if we will get that this year. The backups are no slouches but I am hoping this isn’t a “What Could Have Been” type of year with this defense.

  3. Jack
    * I would agree with your grades except with Armstead and Kinlaw hurt I would give the defense an A, not A+

    QUESTION: Do you believe DeMeco Ryans will be the HC for another NFL team next season?
    If so, will the 9er make Vic Fangio the DC to replace him and will the 9ers switch to a 3 – 4 D?

  4. Jack,
    I mostly agree with your grades. I would split the D line grade in two. An A+ for pass rush and a B for run D. The second grade would be an A+ also before Kinlaw and Armstead went down but drops to a C after that averaging out to a B. I would give ST’s a D- the only high spot has been Wishnowsky. McCloud has been better than Avg but I hold my breath every time he touches the ball in fear of a fumble.

    1. agree with OC. Run defense has lagged at times. The A plus is too generous, even for the pass rush. We do have to fix special teams. They have been surprisingly bad this year.

      1. Losing both your starters on the interior line and 2 of your key linebackers shuffling in and out of the lineup with injuries would have a lot to do with the run defense. I’m not sure there’s another team (or coach) out there that could do a better job given the situation.

        1. Without a doubt injuries have been the reason the run D has lagged but there is a good chance we will be without the two DT’s until the end of the year. We may need one or two new DT’s next year as well as a center, RT and a swing T who will step in for Williams eventually. All of those needs without a first, second and fourth round pick, then extending Bosa, Aiyuk and picking up CMC’s salary there won’t be any cap room to sign any quality FA’s. WE better win the SB this year.

          1. Agree. Wasn’t a big fan of the CMC trade; feels like patching up cracks elsewhere where the real leak is under center. Probably would have been best to keep the picks.

            I’m still pissed we lost another year of learning for Trey because Shanny got greedy. Now by the time Trey gets in the swing of things (if he ever does) our playmakers will start to feel a bit outside their primes. And we don’t have the draft capital right now to replace them. Feeling like Kittle may already be there but can’t say with certainty yet.

  5. Well written and 100 percent accurate. Seems the Niners don’t get into the groove until the second half of the season. I think Jimmy is doing better because he has a real QB coach. The last guy was a joke. Finally, you have brought back the class, intelligence and good vibes this Site had lost for years. Big thanks Jack.

    1. I’m an LSU fan. I’m from San Francisco but I’ve always liked them and the passion of their fan base. Plus I have family that attended LSU. This LBer from LSU, Perkins I think, #40 has 49er written all over him. Fast, playmaker, all over the field. He’s Dre Greenlaw only a lot better at the college level. True Freshman and soon to be All American. Definitely a kid to watch. And then their TE that scored the late TD and then got the 2 point conversion for the win. Mason Taylor, Jason Taylor’s son and Zach Thomas’s nephew, is also a true Freshman. He reminds me a little of Kittle. Very athletic and just a ball player. A ton of fun to watch. Do anything kind of kid. Another future 49er I hope.

  6. Jack
    * Colts fire HC Frank Reich….
    * Names of 3 other 2022 NFL coaches who could be fired….
    Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera, Washington Commanders, Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals!
    * Do you agree?

      1. Yes, Rhule was fired after losing to the 9ers.
        I should have framed the question that way, but was asking who else, after Reich was fired. My bad.

  7. GEEP,
    Interesting list. Kingsbury could possibly be safe because the team is still competitive and has a chance to make a little run.
    One head coach that I would add to your list is Josh McDaniels. Asst. coaches don’t always find success as head coaches. McDaniels failed in Denver and he doesn’t seem to be a leader of men.

    In the flip side of failing head coaches there are some that have done an exceptional job.
    Robert Saleh, Mike McDaniels and Pete Carroll. There are others, but these guys weren’t expected to make high improvements as they have so far.

    1. I can’t stand Pete Carroll. He may be my least favorite football coach of all time. The guy just oozes d-bag. The way he left USC was straight up scummy. Truly a sleazebag. But I have to give the man credit. He’s a hell of a football coach. What he has done with this years Seahawks team may be his best coaching job ever. I expect them to fall flat in the 2nd half but it’s possible they could make the playoffs. They won’t go far but he has far outcoached expectations this year.

      1. 1.6 Pat,
        I too, have never been a fan of Carroll. But he is one of a handful of head coaches that have found success in the college ranks and NFL.
        Great college head coaches like Saban and Meyers have failed miserably in the NFL.
        Carroll and Jimmy Johnson have won Super Bowls.

        1. I forgot to add Barry Zwitzer, but he lucked out by walking into a ready-made strong SB material cowboys team.
          But the guy is merely a blip by cowboys fans and former cowboys players.

      1. “It might be time to start realizing that McDaniels just doesn’t have the chops to be an NFL head coach as he’s lost 23 of his last 30 games, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press. It’s a very real possibility that the Raiders could have a one-and-done coach.”

        Interesting take regarding Josh McDaniels. He is a modern day Norv Turner, imho.
        Great OC, not so much as HC.

  8. “It might be time to start realizing that McDaniels just doesn’t have the chops to be an NFL head coach as he’s lost 23 of his last 30 games, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press. It’s a very real possibility that the Raiders could have a one-and-done coach.”

    Interesting take regarding Josh McDaniels. He is a modern day Norv Turner, imho.
    Great OC, not so much as HC.

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