Whether a team has an unwatchable player at the position or a dynamic one, quarterbacks make headlines. The 49ers came into an extraordinary situation in 2017 — a true midseason phenomenon in the form a potential top-five quarterback who we’ve only known as the guy holding the clipboard for one of the greatest passers in league history — and it dominated the end-of-season media.
It could be Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young all over again.
So, it made sense that Jimmy Garoppolo’s late-season clinic overshadowed other aspects of the team worth discussing.
In one such case, a major defensive turnaround.
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Only a year ago, the 49ers were historically bad on that side of the ball. They finished 32nd in total defense, coming in last in both yards and points allowed. They gave up 100-yard rushers in seven consecutive games as part of a 13-game losing streak. And they ranked among the bottom in defensive DVOA, finishing 28th, according to Football Outsiders.
Gaffes happened on that side of the ball that would either ignite bouts of hysterical laughter, ire, or physical depression. It was as bad as it gets.
Predictably, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was let go as part of a third consecutive house cleaning, and the new regime made up of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan brought in Robert Saleh, a first-timer who was formerly the Jaguars' linebackers coach. The hire notably triggered a switch in their base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, a scheme they haven’t run since 2006 under Bill Davis.
However, there was belief it could work. The 49ers didn't have the personnel for a 3-4 anymore. And Saleh, coming from the Pete Carroll tree of coaching, was bringing credibility with him to Santa Clara. Running a system that the Seahawks, Falcons and Jaguars were all currently benefitting from signaled a step in the right direction.
A couple months later, the draft-rich 49ers selected an uber-athletic defensive lineman third overall, they traded back into the first round for the best inside linebacker prospect since Luke Kuechly in 2012, and selected a tall cover cornerback with real upside in the third round. Their first three picks all went to the defensive side of the ball.
By May, it looked like the 49ers’ once-gawked-at defense was on the up and up.
After their first full season season, they ranked seventh in yards per rushing attempt (3.8); they tied for first in rushing fumbles (10); and they tied for 18th in rushing touchdowns allowed, a middle-of-pack ranking which still reflects improvement. They came on strong at the end, putting together a seven-game stretch between Week 10 and Week 17 without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
Night and day from a year ago.
Even with injuries over the season and new faces entering the lineup weekly, the 49ers only allowed three 100-yard rushing performances all season, and they came from Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson.
Admittedly, the pass defense hasn’t taken a leap in the rankings, but it’s been in flux most of the year, and is looking better coming out of 2017 than it did going in.
Trent Baalke carryover and season-opening CB1 Rashard Robinson was traded to the New York Jets after six starts and a benching. Colorado product Ahkello Witherspoon rose from the game day inactives and into a promising young cornerback, and could be pegged as the team's most improved player from training camp on. Donte Johnson remained hot and cold; he would start and then casually get benched during games for practice squad players and street free agents.
On the deep part of the field, the 49ers had one of their bigger offseason hits in safety Adrian Colbert, who is playing impact football as a seventh-rounder out of Miami. Veteran nickel K’Waun Williams even looks like a Carlos Rogers-esque steal of free agency.
And while it was very much a mixed bag week to week, they’re still turning over the corner and safety positions. But it's getting better and the secondary group should be markedly improved in 2018. After all, they found three keepers in Witherspoon, Colbert and Williams in their first year, and the largest investment was a third-rounder. They’re maybe a good starting corner away from being a top-10 or -15 unit.
Other finds on that side of the ball consist of Sheldon Day and Cassius Marsh, two defensive linemen claimed off waivers that look like good roster filler beyond 2017. Linebacker Brock Coyle exceeded expectations, as did defensive tackle Leger Douzable. And 100+ sack man Elvis Dumervil was a great veteran addition.
Of 11 needed starters, the 49ers can safely say they have long-term pieces at every level of their defensive infrastructure, with Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner on the line, Reuben Foster as the nucleus, Witherspoon out on the boundary, and Colbert playing deep middle. Two of these guys are playing at an All-Pro level right now and the others have Pro Bowl potential.
Overall, Saleh, the position coaches, the scheme and the defensive talent are a big reason the 49ers are no longer in the gutter.
To go a step further and highlight why the arrow could stay pointing up on this defense, we must also acknowledge the impact Garoppolo did have, in addition to those other direct factors. Having a functional offense took immense pressure off a previously-strained defense.
The 49ers began sustaining longer drives, scoring, winning time of possession, and it had the defense fresher over four quarters, and more confident that they were playing for a win. It wasn't wasted energy, and they no longer became demoralized as the game wore on.
And it showed up in the stats, per NFL Network's Erin Coscarelli:
In Weeks 1-12, the 49ers defense ranked 28th in total yards per game, and 30th in rushing yards allowed per game.
In Weeks 13-16, the 49ers defense ranked 11th in total defense and third against the run.
And they made that jump after losing defensive first-rounders Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward to injured reserve, and trading Robinson. What we can take away is that the direction they’re heading is real, it’s positive, and as a unit, they should only get better after another year in the system, and with another batch of defensive players added to the mix.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images, AP Images