49ers Defense Facing Crunch Time

Jack Hammer

The 49ers came into the season with thoughts of taking revenge for blowing a 10-point lead in the Super Bowl. But so far, things haven’t gone to plan. 

One reason is the defense that was dominant throughout the early part of 2019 has not been able to regain that same level of play for a variety of reasons.

Last season the San Francisco 49ers blew through the early part of their schedule winning their first eight games. The 49ers are now a quarter of the way through the 2020 season and find themselves in last place in the NFC West with a record of 2-2. What’s going on with the 49ers?

Let’s take a look at some numbers first. In the first four games of 2019 the 49ers offense scored 113 points. They are at 107 so far this season. Not much different.

In the first four game of 2019 the 49ers offense turned the ball over 8 times, including having an interception returned for touchdown. This season the 49ers also have had an interception returned for a touchdown but their total turnovers have been cut to 4, a 50% reduction.

This leads to the first reason the 49ers find themselves where they are: sudden change defense. Sudden change situations occur any time the offense or defense must take the field unexpectedly. For example, Nick Mullens is sacked and fumbles the ball forcing the defense onto the field.

Through the first quarter of 2019, the 49ers defense was put in sudden change situations quite a bit, especially over the first three games. The most glaring example was Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers when the offense turned the ball over 5 times. In total, the 49ers defense faced 7 sudden change situations in the first 4 games last season, in those situations they allowed a total of 6 points. So far this season the 49ers defense has only faced sudden change situations 3 times, but they have allowed 10 points on those.

The 49ers defense also helped the offense out by putting points on the board early last season. In the season opener against Tampa Bay, the defense scored 14 of the final 17 points. So far this season the defense has not been able to match that. In fact, they have only forced 5 turnovers so far, a 50% reduction as well.

Not only has the defense allowed more points off turnovers, they’ve allowed more points overall. Through the first quarter of last season the 49ers defense allowed only 57 points, that is up to 71 through the same period this season. When you add that 14-point increase to the 14 points they scored last year on the interceptions you get a negative 28-point swing year over year. Not good.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons behind the fall off, and we’ll start with the easy one. The 49ers defense has been depleted by injuries with Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Dre Greenlaw, all missing significant time so far in 2020. Despite losing Bosa and Ford, the 49ers pass rush has not dropped off all that much as their replacements have faired well. In the first quarter of 2019 the 49ers pass rush recorded 13 sacks and 27 quarterback hits. Without Bosa and Ford for pretty much all of games 2-4 this season, the 49ers pass rush has still managed to register 8 sacks and 25 quarterback hits.

In addition to the injuries, the 49ers defense from the Super Bowl also lost DeForest Buckner in an offseason trade. While Buckner’s replacement, Javon Kinlaw, has shown promise, he has yet to record a sack and through the first four games has registered only one hit on the quarterback. By this point last season Buckner had already recorded 3 sacks and 6 quarterback hits.

The 49ers defense started off 2019 facing Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Mason Rudolph and Baker Mayfield. The first three are backup quarterbacks and the fourth had one of the worst head coaches in the league calling the plays. Compare that to what they’ve had to face so far this season, Kyler Murray, Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, and Carson Wentz. The 49ers defense absolutely destroyed Darnold and Jones, both bad quarterbacks with bad offensive play callers and got beat by Murray and Wentz who are above average.

After taking on Ryan Fitzpatrick this week, the 49ers defense will be in for quite the challenge. Starting a week from Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers defense will face teams with quarterbacks that have previously started in the Super Bowl for six straight weeks followed by a Buffalo team led by Josh Allen. While Allen hasn’t led Buffalo to the Super Bowl, he has improved as a passer this season and is a very capable runner which has already given this defense fits. 

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