The San Francisco 49ers defense has given up 27 points or more in all three games of the 2013 season. This is a far cry from the defensive juggernaut that the 49ers once were. The drop off seemed to be very sudden. It started towards the end of last year and has leaked through to this season.
The 49ers were third in the NFL in yards given up per game (294.4), fourth in passing yards allowed per game (200.2) and fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (94.2). More importantly, they were second in the NFL in points allowed per game by giving up only 17.1 points per game. That is a far cry from the 29 points per game that they are giving up so far this season.
The problems on defense can be traced back to the week 15 game in New England against the Patriots. The 49ers gave up 34 points in a game in which Justin Smith was lost. Aldon Smith also hurt his shoulder but still finished the season. The next game was against the Seahawks in Seattle and the defense gave up 35 of the 42 points. Richard Sherman returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in that game. The Cardinals only scored 13 points in the season finale, but they played without any running game and had Brian Hoyer as their quarterback.
Only one team, the Denver Broncos, gave up more than the 28 points per game that the 49ers gave up in the playoffs. The 49ers gave up a total of eight touchdowns in the air and gave up 306 yards passing per game. The one bright spot in the playoffs was how the 49ers maintained their identity as a team that is difficult to run against. They gave up 92.7 yards rushing and only one touchdown.
Looking at those stats will show the tale of two teams. The 2012 49ers were a tough team that didn’t allow teams to run against them and teams rarely scored touchdowns against them on the ground. They only gave up seven touchdowns on the season.
The 2013 49ers have given up six touchdowns in three games. That is more than any other team. They are allowing offenses to rush for 138 yards per game so far this season. This is a far cry from the physical 49ers that have repeatedly punched opponents in the mouth.
What is wrong with this defense?
First and foremost, they have lost their identity. The front seven was once the best in the NFL. They were known for holding their ground against offensive lines and for their play making inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Both of them are first team All Pros in consecutive years. Ahmad Brooks has done a good job of forcing plays back inside by keeping his outside contain assignment.
Aldon Smith actually improved in his ability to defend the run as well. In my opinion, that is where he made the most improvement. Unfortunately, Aldon has some personal issues to work out that will keep him from the team for at least a month. I wish him the best with his quest to get things together.
In the meantime, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will be relied on to take his place. Skuta has been named the starter, but Lemonier, a rookie is the better pass rusher. It will be interesting how they get Lemonier involved in the defense. Lemonier is a rookie that showed right away that he is able to rush the passer. His first step is very fast, and it allows him to get a big time jump on the ball.
The loss of nose tackle Ian Williams has hurt this football team. Glenn Dorsey is a decent option but Williams did a very good job before being injured by a cowardly chop block by J.R. Sweezy while he was engaged with another Seahawk offensive lineman. The 49ers miss Isaac Sopoaga and his ability to keep the opposing team from getting a push in the inside gaps.
Justin Smith has done a good job occupying two gaps but things just get worse and worse for this defense as the game wears on. This is because the defense is on the field way too much. The Seahawks had the ball for 36 minutes against them in week two. The Colts also had the ball for 36 minutes.
The defense wears down late in the game. Look at how the game got away from the 49ers late in the game. The Colts scored 14 of their 27 points in the last four minutes and 13 seconds. The Seahawks had similar success as they scored 17 of their 29 points in the fourth quarter.
The problem is that the offense is getting too many three and outs. They are struggling to sustain drives that keep the defense off of the field. The 49ers were only able to convert three out of twelve third down attempts in both of their losses. Additionally, Greg Roman has shown a penchant for abandoning the run and that has not helped rest the defense either.
Another thing that has hurt this defense is penalties. That was really evident in the Colts game. The 49ers had a crucial stop late in the fourth quarter on a third and four when Andrew Luck threw an incomplete pass. The refs made a defensive holding call that kept the drive alive. The Colts proceeded to score on a six yard touchdown run that made the score 20 – 7.
This same kind of drive saving penalty happened in the Seattle game as well. Aldon Smith had an unnecessary roughness penalty that gave the Seahawks the ball after facing a third and 28. Three plays later, Marshawn Lynch scored a touchdown on a seven yard run that made the score 19 – 3. Both of these are examples of penalties that were big time momentum changers.
The secondary also needs to play better. Nnamdi Asomugha has been a target for opposing defenses. Tarell Brown has blown a few assignments and has been guilty of a few pass interference calls. Eric Reid has been a bright spot but he has to work on being a more sure tackler.
This defense will need to turn it around. The amount of points that they are giving up is far too much.
The offense needs to help out more as well. Of course, they won’t score every time they get the ball but they need to be able to flip the field and set the defense up by having them defend drives that start deep in their own territory.
There is still time to right the ship. It is only three weeks into the season. There is still a lot of football left to play.