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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.