Secondary returns, but will it be better?

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman (25) and free safety Adrian Colbert, left, during a drill at the team’s NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

SANTA CLARA — Why did the 49ers bring back the worst secondary in the NFL?

It wasn’t just bad in 2018. It was historically bad. The 49ers intercepted only two passes — a new single-season low for an NFL defense. They also gave up 35 touchdown catches (second-most in the NFL), and broke up just 39 pass attempts — by far the fewest in the league.

After such futility, most franchises would scrap their secondary and find new players.

Not the 49ers.

The biggest addition they made to their secondary was veteran cornerback Jason Verrett, who has missed 43 games due to injury the past three seasons. The 49ers signed him to a one-year deal. He might not even make the final roster.

And yet, despite not making any major changes, the 49ers feel confident their secondary will play well next season. Here is their thought process:

This article has 70 Comments

    1. I see another mediocre to average season for the secondary. You just can’t rely on guys with major injuries (multiple in some cases) to be healthy.

  1. IMO, not addressing the issues in the secondary is absolutely bizarre. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Witherspoon is definitely a gifted athlete but he does not have a football brain. He’s tentative. He blames teammates for his screwups. And he’s not physical in the least. Those are things you can’t really coach. He has the personality of a person that should be in a single contributor sport with no contact – like tennis. If Sherman was “dragging his leg” one year removed from an achilles injury then what in the world do the 49ers think they are going to get from Verrett who is also 1 year removed from an achilles injury? Sherman is a shadow of his former self but he hasn’t been exposed yet because Witherspoon was so bad. The 49ers have 2 safeties that will be a minor miracle if they make it to game 4 without going on IR. Once they go down, the team will be relying on 7th rounders and UDFA’s to play perhaps the most important position in their new Wide 9 strategy. If Kwon misses a tackle and Colbert takes a bad angle like he normally does then the RBs are going to set league records for long TD runs against the 49ers defense. I just don’t get this strategy. It makes no sense whatsoever.

    1. With Shanahan’s organizational chart we have no one at the positions of HC or DC. Let’s hope that the auto-pilot functions better than those 737 Maxs.

  2. One big factor in the improvement in the secondary, will be the subtraction of Hafley, who allowed receivers to run uncovered. Hopefully, Woods will have better schemes, and will forge the secondary into a cohesive unit. Woods may also have a healthy squad, and put the best players in their best positions to succeed.
    .
    I hope Woods is bold, and may move Richard Sherman to safety, like what happened with Ronnie Lott. It helped extend RL’s career, and may do the same with RS. Also, RS would be calling plays for the secondary, if he was a safety, so he would be well suited to play that role as a savvy battle tested veteran, instead of an untested rookie, which happened a lot these past couple of years.
    .
    The Niners should look at the example of RS and his Achilles recovery. It may be wiser to put Verrett on IR, with a mid season designation to return, so he can fully rehab. Then, he will be fresh for the later games, and may help win enough games to help make a push for a possible WC spot. By his own admission, RS said he was not fully recovered to start the season, when asked after this past season.

    1. Ronnie Lott was one of the greatest hitters to play the game. Richard Sherman, while a great defender is one of the worst hitters. Safeties gotta hit.

  3. I am encouraged after hearing the positive early reports on Witherspoon, and confident he will remain the starter to begin the season. Having players like Verrett, and McKinnon in reserve is a nice commodity to have, plus it allows more time for the healing process. I still like the idea of Verrett at NB if he’s your 3rd best cb on the team.

    Defensive deception, along with pocket disruption should definitely amp up the secondaries turnover production by 300%.

  4. IMO I think the 9ers defense–overall–finishes somewhere in the 9th-13th range. As far as defending against the pass, I believe an improved pass rush and improved coaching within the defensive position groups will make a positive difference.

  5. No. 3: 49ers’ Nick Bosa Earns Defensive Rookie of the Year Honors

    “Kyler Murray might have gone No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. But the consensus top prospect was the 49ers’ own, Nick Bosa.”

    “Ford and Buckner combined for 25 sacks last season, meaning Bosa won’t have to “do it all” right out of the gate. Instead, Bosa can rely on the fact opposing blockers will have their hands full handling this pass-rushing trio. ”

    One sports-betting site lists Bosa as the co-favorite to earn 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year honors alongside Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White.

    https://ninernoise.com/2019/06/28/49ers-5-bold-predictions-nfc-west-2019/4/

  6. I believe the team put off addressing the secondary because they wanted to fix the perception problem of a bad pass rush and Lil Shanny wanted new receivers. They bought into the suggestion that next years class of defensive backs is stronger so they decided to put their eggs into the pass rush basket and are keeping two fingers crossed it will be enough to carry them for a season.

    It wont be. Be prepared to see lots of quick slants and short drops by the QB along with a healthy amount of play-action by opposing offenses. Once they’ve neutralized the “improvements” to the pass rush this defense will look just as bad as it did last year.

  7. Football fans? If the shoe fits…
    https://www.quirks.com/articles/study-looks-at-common-traits-of-nfl-fans

    In part…

    “Compared to Americans who aren’t NFL fans, fans of the NFL are:
    – more likely to be daily Twitter users (12 percent vs. 10 percent);
    – more likely to be fans of TV sitcoms;
    – more likely to make over $150,000 per year;
    – more likely to prefer casual restaurants to fine dining; and
    – almost twice as likely to drink beer twice a week or more (when looking at ages 25+).”

  8. There were times last year when opposing QB’s had anywhere from 4-6 seconds in the pocket to pass.
    Even elite DB’s would have coverage issues with that amount of time given a QB to find a WR.

    I continue to be firm that everything starts in the trenches. What takes place in the secondary is ultimately an extention of what first takes place in the trenches.

    The Org seems to believe in this concept as well, hence the signing of Ford and drafting Bosa.
    If these two can help close the amount of time QB’s have to pass the secondary will benefit.
    It starts in the trenches.

    1. Yup, and I hope they experiment and move players around to find their best positions. Thomas, Buckner and Armstead may become more effective if they are moved all over the line, so the offense cannot predict where the pressure is coming from.
      .
      However, having a good secondary is also important. In the Lions game, JG was sacked 6 times because his receivers were not open, and the pass rush eventually collapsed the pocket.

  9. The move of TM to safety will pay dividends later in the season and his exposure at the CB position will help him be a better FS. Players often make a leap from year one to two, but they also have what sometimes is termed the sophomore jinx, maybe because they thought they could relax after a relatively decent rookie year. So here’s hoping it is the later for AW, having JV as a backup, will not be a bad situation if makes the comeback and makes the team. His insight could help AW also.

    With a better pass rush, the secondary should also improve because of this. With guys like Fred and Warner at LB, the quick slant can be neutralized because of their speed and pass coverage ability to clog the passing lanes and angles..

    Of course we won’t know until the bullets start to fly. Outside of injuries, the D most definitely improve, can’t be any worse.

    1. I’d like nothing Moore than to see him win the FS job, and solving that position for years to come. That would give us the luxury of drafting an OT or CB in the 1st round of next years draft….

      1. Razor
        * I would agree with you up to a point. If the Pass Rush doesn’t solve the secondary problems, then the FO has supplied ammunition to their detractors….IE, their competence to evaluate players and solve problems!
        Unfortunately, players coming off injuries will have a substantial effect on the 9ers success this season. If the free agents coming off injuries perform, and the 9ers win 9-10 games, the FO (Lynch) will look like a genius…..IF NOT….FUBAR
        * I still wonder why the 9er FO have ignored Tre Boston. He’s proven he can play the position of greatest need!

        1. Signing Boston before seeing what you have between Moore and Colbert wouldn’t be good business. You’d be taking snaps away from them, not to mention you can sign Boston if after the conclusion of training camp it is determined he would be an upgrade over both of them. It’s not like he’s in high demand or anything….

          1. Razor
            OK! Just this one question! Using your logic, has Moore, or Colbert, shown they can play the position as well as Boston? Boston, like any pro athlete, needs reps to eliminate rust too. Giving reps to Moore / Colbert, delays Boston’s ability to be the best he can be…. IE upgrade the 9er backfield after the conclusion of training camp.
            * BTW: While I don’t believe it will happen, It doesn’t address the possibility that Moore, or Colbert, may not make the 53?

            1. Ward will be available, and they love him. I’m just pulling for the darkhorse Moore to be so good that he keeps Ward on the bench.

              1. Razor:
                * “Ward will be available?”….If you were a NFL FO / HC would you count on Ward being available to save your season? What are the odds of Ward being on IR?
                * I hope Moore / Colbert do well, but I’d cover the possibility they won’t. What are the odds? * Based on past experience, I’d sign Tre Boston….Hope for the best, plan for the worst…..
                * Proverb: “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” “Many people will seek credit for success, but few will accept responsibility for failure.”

              2. 8 games for Ward is the most I’d “count” on, but his skill seems well respected by his teammates and coveted by the coaching staff. I think they’ll end up concluding that Boston is no better than who they have. Best case scenario would be fielding Sherman/Witherspoon/Verrett at the three cb positions, with Moore emerging as a star in the making at FS alongside the veteran Tartt. Similar to the what Hitner did for Reid when he replaced Goldson. That would leave us with some good secondary depth on the bench in Williams, Ward, and Colbert….

  10. The Pass rush will improve which will help the secondary get 10 to 15 intersections and fumble recoveries. But will that cover for they offense tendency in the 4th quarter to go 4 and out! Team needs to learn how to get a lead and hold on to it. We need the offense to keep the ball for 10 to 15 plays each time they have the ball and keep the defense of the field other wise we are looking at a 3 to 8 wins this season. We should have an idea by the 3rd preseason game.

    1. CFB,
      When all is said and done this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have another pro bowl’r in Wishnowsky.

      This guy is going to provide more than just the standard (but great) punts.
      With Shanahan’ offensive creativity and Wish’ athleticism the options could be interesting.

      The lights (Shanahan’ vision) will go on this season for the 49ers.

      1. He’s a freaking punter that was drafted too high. Let’s temper the enthusiasm. Unrealistic expectations will only hurt this kid.

        1. “Unrealistic expectations will only hurt this kid.”

          So can lower expectations.
          I don’t believe that my expectations are high given what the kid has done in college. The things he has accomplished in college point to a player who is special and capable of putting himself in the pro bowl conversation.

          Of course everything falls under the “if” condition at the moment, but based on what he brings to the table, I don’t doubt that he could do this at the next level.

        2. Houston
          * “Unrealistic expectations will only hurt this kid.”
          * Only if he’s foolish enough to believe what he reads in the press….
          * Wishnowsky averaged 45.7 yards on 175 punts for the Utes, including 74 that were pinned inside the 20-yard line! If he comes close to that this season, he’ll be considered a steal as the 110th overall pick in the draft! If not, you can get out the pitchforks, a rail, and tar and feather him!
          * Until then, lets see what he can do to quiet the NFL monday morning armchair experts?

          1. NFL= Not for long!

            A lot of ifs holding this team to loftier expectations. What happens if the the other scenarios come to pass instead?

            If Varrett isn’t healthy, if the secondary doesn’t improve, if Sherman isn’t what he was, if Witherspoon doesn’t get technique down, if Woods isn’t an improvement on The most recent coach…

            Interesting that the talk on players not executing was that the coach wasn’t teaching technique adequately enough, hmmm………

              1. The “IF” in sports is always present.
                It can add a mix of anxiety and intrigue.

                Since I have no control over how a previously injured player comes back or if our rookies make a impact, I try to lean more towards intrigue.

                The ever present “if” will play itself out soon enough.

          2. “If he comes close to that this season, he’ll be considered a steal as the 110th overall pick in the draft! ”

            I would not consider him a steal if he made the pro bowl.

  11. While the Niners are obviously hoping that an improved pass rush will make a huge difference…..to paraphrase Buddy Ryan: “A Quarterback has never completed a pass on his back”….(I do not believe that is entirely true…but I think his meaning is clear).

    But I think the change in secondary coaches might be the biggest deal. IMO many of the biggest problems the secondary had were purely mental mistakes. Players not knowing their assignment or how to do their assignment well. That’s a coaching issue. A defensive back beaten straight up but still in the right place more often than not should still be able to stop the big play. The problem with players not knowing their jobs and/or how to do their jobs was further compounded by all the injuries in the secondary. Again, it’s up to the coaches to get even the back ups to at least know what they’re supposed to do and how to do it….even if they can’t do it well. But often times they came in completely lost and exposed.

    1. I agree. Mabin not playing the side line, letting receivers catch the ball and step out of bounds to stop the clock, was a coaching failure. Mabin should have been prepared well enough ahead of time, to be able to defend better.
      .
      Witherspoon not being able to turn his head and track the ball is also a coaching weakness. Witherspoon should be practicing that technique until he is competent doing it. The coaching seemed non existent.
      .
      I hope Woods can not only get the right player to play in his best position to succeed, I hope he can instill the proper techniques to allow them to effectively do their job.

  12. Grant,

    If you’re seeing quarters coverage, any chance they may be playing a Palms/Match Quarters coverage? That would allow the safeties to have a step towards the line of scrimmage if they read a short pass or a run…which would further fortify the run defense.

      1. Tarrt talked about rotating into the box that both of the safeties were interchangable. That’s from a single high coverage. The only difference is that instead of one of the Safeties being a Rover and moving to the side opposite of the SAM…..the safety needed to come down on the the strong side will come down…either the of the safeties. It’s the same as the SAM and WILL being more interchangable as well. both have pretty much the same roles on their side of the formation.

        What I’m talking about is the safety play coming from a 2 high look….from quarters coverage. A 2 read technique or “palms”….Fangio used to run it. The Safeties read the #2 receiver on their side of the formation and come down on short routes and stay deep on deep routes (that threaten the seam). This also has the added benefit of bring the safeties in on run plays….which helps with secondary run support. I’m wondering if the quarters coverage that Grant claims the Niners will play from time to time will use a 2 read match quarters coverage scheme.

  13. I Just dont want to see Colbert starting again …i think we are ok at strong safety with Harris he was balling at end of year making plays in the backfield for losses. I like his game. I wanted Chauncey Gardner Johnson but Lynch blew that. Free safety is the hole unless they let Moore take the over. 4.3 speed can’t hurt playing center field. He Just needs reps with the 1st team. When that will happen who knows probably only when ward and Colbert get hurt. SMH

  14. The Pass rush will improve which will help the secondary get 10 to 15 intersections and fumble recoveries. But will that cover for they offense tendency in the 4th quarter to go 4 and out! Team needs to learn how to get a lead and hold on to it. We need the offense to keep the ball for 10 to 15 plays each time they have the ball and keep the defense of the field other wise we are looking at a 3 to 8 wins this season. We should have an idea by the 3rd preseason game.

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