Last season, the San Francisco 49ers were a dominant team, and many pundits said that the Niners had the most complete roster in the NFL. Despite having such a powerful roster, the Niners fell in last year’s Super Bowl as the Ravens exploited several of the Niners’. The Niners have made several changes to the roster in order to fill in the weak spots and create an even more powerful squad.
The Niners’ secondary was vilified by the fans and media members following their defeat in the Super Bowl. I believe that blaming the secondary was totally unjustified. The major amount of blame falls on the shoulders of their pass rush, mainly their secondary pass rush. The Niners as a team had 38 sacks during the regular season, while adding four more during three playoff games. The problem is that 27 of those 42 sacks came from just two players in Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The rest of the defense combined for the remaining 15 sacks.
The Niners need to fix their pass rush depth on the roster. Relying on just one or two players to provide pressure has the potential to let you down, if a players suffers an injury or a slump of any kind. That is what exactly happened during the second half of the season. Aldon Smith suffered a shoulder injury late in the season, which coincided with his drop in pass rush production. The Niners simply did not have someone else to pick up the slack in that defensive front.
The Niners attempted to solve that issue early in this year’s draft. They spent two of their top four picks on players to help out in the defensive front. Their second round pick was Cornellius “Tank” Carradine out of Florida State, who is projected to play at the defensive end position. However, he does have potential as a pass-rusher, with 16.5 sacks in 24 games during his college career.
The other player added was Corey Lemonier from Auburn to play outside linebacker. Lemonier was seen as a potential first or second round talent, but dropped from a lack of production in his junior year. He had 9.5 sacks as sophomore, but regressed to just 5.5 sacks the next season. A lot of that is due to how bad the rest of the defense was. Watching the tape, it was easy to see Lemonier being the only defender constantly hustling on each and every play.
The other weakness was the team’s special teams play. The Niners’ kickoff coverage unit struggled mightily last season, despite being one of the top units the season before. They allowed the second highest kick return average in the entire league with 26.9 yards per return, while only surrendering 23.1 yards per return the season before.
The kickoff coverage unit let the Niners down in a big way during the Super Bowl. The allowed Jacoby Jones to average 41.2 yards per return in the game, including a 108 yard return to start the second half. That return end of being the difference in the game, as the Niners battled back to bring the game to within five points at one point.
The Niners brought in Phil Dawson to replace David Akers as the kicker. Dawson would help to improve the Niners kickoff coverage. He had a below-average 39 percent touchback percentage, but Cleveland had the second best coverage unit with only 19.8 yards allowed per return. It would seem that Cleveland would prefer to go for high kicks that would allow the coverage units to get closer to the return man before he caught and to try and hold the return inside the 20.
The Niners also went to free agency and the draft as a way to shore up their coverage units. In free agency, the Niners brought in linebacker Dan Skuta and safety Craig Dahl. These two players are expected to come in as role players by playing special teams and providing depth to their respective positions.
Skuta was the Bengals’ special teams’ ace with a team best 17 special teams tackles. He is expected to come in and fill that void left by the departure of Blake Constanzo prior to last season. Dahl underwhelmed many fans, who believe he was brought in to be the starter at the free safety position. He will come in as role and depth player on defense. He will also take Dashon Goldson’s spot on special teams.
The Niners added to their coverage unit in the draft as well by bringing in Nick Moody from Florida State and Marcus Cooper from Rutgers. Moody was considered to be one of the best special teams players in college football last season. That is where is he expects to make a name for himself behind Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman at the inside linebacker position.
Moody is a very athletic linebacker, who is a ferocious and sound tackler that should allow him to be force on the coverage units. Cooper is a defensive back with great size and speed and great athletic potential. He played mainly as a reserve at Rutgers and spent most of his time on the team’s special teams units.
The Niners were plagued by their lack pass rushing depth and their inconsistency on kickoff coverage. These two problems came out in big ways during the Super Bowl and were major reasons for their fall. They have made strides in attempting to fill in those holes in the roster during this off season with free agency and the draft. It will be seen what improvements these two units make next season and if that will be the key to pushing them over the top.