Catching a Cheetah: How the 49ers’ Secondary Stacks Up Against Tyreek Hill

Matt Holder

When it comes to speed receivers in the NFL there are three categories: fast, extremely fast, and Tyreek Hill. He has been taking the top off defenses since he became a full-time starter in 2017 and leads the league in receiving yards per target with 10.64 in that time frame. 

During the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive backs will have to figure out how to stay in front of the speedster. San Francisco’s secondary has been very impressive this season as the team allowed the fewest yards per game through the air in the league. 

While Hill is certainly a significant threat, the 49ers had success this season against a wideout with a similar skill set in Tyler Lockett. In two games against the Red and Gold, the Seahawk totaled nine catches for 77 yards and one touchdown.

Of course, success against one player with similar traits doesn’t always equal success against another, and Hill is probably a step above of Lockett as a receiver, but the back-end of San Francisco’s defense should have plenty of confidence heading into Sunday. Below is a look at how the 49ers’ defensive backs stack up against “Cheetah.”

Richard Sherman

At his point in his career, it’s just expected that Sherman will be great. Finishing the season allowing a mere 387 receiving yards, a passer rating of 64.1, and as the top cornerback in Pro Football Focus’ grading system shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. He’s done this for years now and will cap off his football life with a trip to Canton, Ohio to pick up one of those gold jackets.

While he has continued to impress this season, the 31-year-old is getting up there in terms of age and speed appears to be his Achilles heel. Recently, this was exposed by Davante Adams on a go route that resulted in a 65-yard completion during the NFC Championship.

The cornerback will have to play with a bit more cushion against Hill this weekend, but the good news for San Francisco is back in week 17 Lockett wasn’t even targeted when Sherman guarded him. Hopefully, that means the former All-Pro hasn’t lost a step and the big play to Adams was more indicative of the game situation - a 21-point lead with 10 minutes to play - than Sherman’s ability to stay with wideouts.

Emmanuel Moseley

After a handful of poor performances from Ahkello Witherspoon, it looks like the team has finally turned the starting role over to Emmanuel Moseley. That appears to be the smart decision as the latter finished the regular season allowing 392 yards and a passer rating of 79.2 when targeted. During the playoffs, those figures are even more impressive as each has dropped to 58 and 31.6, respectively.

The big question for the big game is if he can stay in front of Hill. During his pro day two years ago, the Tennessee product ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash which as impressive as that is, doesn’t really compare to the receiver’s time of 4.28 seconds. Moseley - 5’11” 185lbs - is about the same size as Hill - 5’10” 185lbs - so hopefully, the defensive back can be effective in press coverage so he can stay with, and slow the speed demon down.

K’Waun Williams

About 45 percent of Hill’s offensive snaps and about 40 percent of his receiving yards have come as a slot receiver this year. Versatility is another one of his strong suits and the Chiefs like to kick him inside to create potential miss-matches. However, San Francisco is well equipped to handle the challenge if Kansas City decides to go this route.

K’Waun Williams isn’t exactly the headliner when it comes to the 49ers’ defense, but he is an x-factor and will play a big role during the Super Bowl. As previously mentioned, Hill is one of the league’s best in terms of average depth of target, however, Williams is the perfect counter as he owns the lowest ADOT among cornerbacks who played at least 300 coverage snaps.

The nickelback has continued to play at a high level during the postseason as he earned the highest PFF grade on the Red and Gold’s defense in the NFC Championship. This matchup might be the most interesting one to watch on Sunday.

Safeties

When facing a burner like “Cheetah,” the safeties’ role becomes even more important. As the name of the position implies, they are back there to make sure everything stays in front of the defense and prevent big plays from happening. This means Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have extremely important jobs in the Super Bowl.

As the primary free safety, the burden of keeping Hill in check will primarily fall on Ward’s shoulders. During the regular season, he only allowed 107 total air yards in coverage and a mere 5.5 yards per target. The former Northern Illinois Huskie’s presence should give San Francisco’s cornerbacks confidence that if the speedy receiver does manage to slip their coverage, a big momentum-shifting play will still be prevented.

Tartt has mixed in on the back end of the defense as well and saw even more success than Ward. The 2015 second-round pick had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019 as he allowed 3.3 yards per target and 34 total air yards in coverage. Again, there is no reason for San Francisco’s defense not to feel good about themselves heading into the weekend.

For the 49ers’ defensive backs, all they have to do is put their track shoes on and execute.

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