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2014-15 NFL Season E

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Dayo Fayanju
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Alligator Blood and Alligator arms: How the 49ers back has survived (and sometimes thrived) with a depleted front

11/22/2014 1:00am
last edited:11/24/2014 7:53pm

The Niners have spent three years a bridesmaid. Many will remember certain stunning plays from their three near misses ( A fair catch call, five yards, and a wide open Vernon Davis) from winning a Super Bowl and playing in two more. Those games were already closer than necessary however, because of Secondary (non) plays that were just as
crucial but not as televised. Take your pick: the continuous Third down conversions to Victor Cruz before the Kyle Williams ; the barrage of Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith over Whitner (and Culliver and just about every other Niners defensive back that night) that put the Niners into a 22 point hole in the blackout bowl; a Carlos Rogers whiff on a go-ahead touchdown to Jermaine Kearse before the Immaculate Deflection. If the Niners' offensive skill position players have been the face of the Niners' not quite Cinderella stories, then the secondary has been the broken glass slipper heel: losing games in spite of a ferocious front seven in 2011 and 2013 or because that front seven was compromised in 2012. The sportswriting world wasn't thinking 2014 was going to be much better, not after the injuries to the league’s best coverage linebackers and the nine-game suspension of the Niners' best edge rusher: Bill Barnwell kindly suggested two early picks at secondary to  avoid a Thanksgiving night disaster at the hands of Percy Harvin, while in one fan's more blunt view (per deadspin) : “Our front office's plan for the secondary this offseason was, "Let's get way worse." 

Eleven weeks into the 2014, without a single snap from NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis on IR after week six and just one game from Aldon Smith,
the 49ers defense ranks number one per DVOA,  without anyone like Patrick Peterson. With a rookie slot corner, and, to Grantland’s joy, an undersized linebacker with T-rex arms and a  game made for a prehistoric NFL . What happened to way worse, 49ers fan on Deadspin?  The answer has been two years in the making. Let's break it down.

1.From Golden Rocket Hammers  to Smart Bombs 

 The 2011 49ers defense looked something like this: a sea of Red came crashing down in the face of every opposing Quarterback , making every ball leave the hands of an opposing signal caller with different time, a different angle, and an altered route. Those changed routes and disoriented QB reads became the  big hits and interception walls that made the Whitner-Goldson combo so much fun. Without such a consistent and effective pass rush(
as happened with the injury of Justin Smith), savvy offensive teams exposed a secondary susceptible to the third and long gains and blown coverages that everyone hated about the Whitner-Goldson combo. So the Niners cancelled the Dashon and Donte Show after a disastrous 2012 season finale (the first half of Super Bowl XLVII) and looked for a secondary that could put on a show without co- best supporting actors Justin( or even Aldon) Smith. 

Enter Eric Reid (in 2013) and Antoine Bethea (in 2014) . That meant rockets were out, and missiles were in. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are doing things more like 4-3 middle Linbackers than Whitner-Goldson  hammer bombs. They stop the run and even blitz( not necessarily well), but they'll get passes defended more than they'll get Pokemon style one hit KOs of 2011 and 2012. They still hit people( 
ask Dez Bryant) but they don't(usually)  abandon pass coverage to do it. But what about speed you say? Who needs speed when you can make like T-mobile and.... 

2.Get more

Why get four DBs when you can have more DBs?  In an NFL where it’s easier to pass than ever, a lot of teams do. The Harbaugh-Fangio Niners might be synonymous with a 3-4 front of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but the numbers don’t lie: The great Carlos Rogers led the 9ers in 2013 defensive snaps. That worked however, because of pass rushers everywhere all the time. The nickel defense of the 2014 49ers ranked 1st in DVOA even at 27th(!) in the league in sacks and two of those players out or less effective than usual for most of it. In the middle of this Bowman-less, Willis-less defense …..

3.New Blood

On the very pleasant surprise of intended backup Chris Borland, I will mostly defer to ProFootballFocus' Sam Monson. Having a Luke Kuechly/Brandon Spikes/Kiko Alonso hybrid whirling around to stop the run and effect passing games to the fullest extent of his abilities definitely helps . What I’ll take on is the Northern Illinois enigma who wasn’t filling in for anyone, Jimmie Ward, who's meant more than people would believe. The Niners’ decided that three season ending performances from Carlos Rogers were enough, and made safety/corner hybrid Jimmie Ward their 2014 first round pick. Many people didn't know why the Niners’ picked a safety at all; after the Chicago and Arizona games, many more wondered if this was the right one. They might want to reconsider. Despite a shaky start, Jimmie Ward became less and less visible: for a rookie secondary player, that's a good thing. As he improved, teams were less able to take advantage of his size (as Chicago did) and weren't so capable of negating his range and reactivity ( the one thing Niners’ Defense would have liked against Cruz and Kearse at least). Brandon Marshall boxed him out. John Brown caught him off unawares. The Broncos did whatever Broncos do (to Ward and the rest of the Niners’ defense). But speed merchant Brandon Cooks in the Superdome? Not so fast! After giving up a touchdown in the first half, Ward and the Niners underneath coverage held Cooks to two catches for fourteen yards. Ward then hurt his previously injured foot in game and is now on IR for the rest of the season, so the fun stops there(for this year anyway). As glum as the small school Rookie made Niners fans after week 2 and week 3, the Saints game might have gone a good way to justify the Niners’ choice of a third safety. They might not be in the playoff hunt at all without him.

It's way (way way way) too early to call Jimmie Ward the new AFC North's Ed Reed to the new AFC North`s Troy Polamalu( the irrepressible and instinctive ball-cardinal(not hawk) Tyrann Mathieu).  At best, he might be something closer to Ladarius Webb, Devin McCourty, or Casey Heyward. The Niners better hope he’s not Mike Rumph.  What Ward is definitely, is a part of is a mentality shift. The 49ers’ entire defense has shifted its numbers to the rear  to put  Victor Cruz, Torrey Smith, and(sort of) Jermaine Kearse in the rear-view mirror ( footnote: No Doug Baldwin, you're not really pedestrian, but the burner of your team currently plays 3000 miles away) while staying stout against the run as it’s always been. It couldn’t have happened so far without too small linebackers, too short corners, and a short armed hybrid of London Fletcher, Brandon Spikes, and a T-Rex.  Niners fans aren’t sure if this is the solution to all the Harbaugh Niners’ untimely problems with death by a thousand paper cuts; or if it's just been an easy slate of passers. This season might be the chance (under Harbaugh anyway) to see whether this overhaul (if not Jimmie Ward) will finally get this team from these weird picks in May to that one very good night in February they’ve been looking for most of all.

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