The Curious Case of the 49ers’ Secondary


Coming up on the ninth week of the season, besides a few snaps in the season’s opener, the San Francisco 49ers’ secondary that started the season has not played with each other.

The 49ers have been plagued with injuries throughout the last two seasons. Last year it was the offense, this year it’s the defense’s turn.

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The absences in the 49ers’ linebacker corps have made the news this season. When players like Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis are missing, it makes sense why it is the main talking point of the 49ers’ defense. However, not much has been made about the 49ers’ constant rotation in the secondary.

Besides a few quips about how it’s the weak part of the defense, the 49ers’ secondary hasn’t been discussed very much. Perrish Cox’s excellent play has brought some attention to it, but that attention is mainly focused individually on him rather than the squad.

The 49ers’ started the season with Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock starting outside, and Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea starting at safety.

When the 49ers went sent in their nickel package, rookie Jimmie Ward started as the nickel corner.

Within a couple plays, Tramaine Brock left the game with what would later be diagnosed as turf toe. Brock came back into the game, but that was after both Culliver and Ward had left the game with concussions.

Brock then proceeded to miss the next five games while Cox took his place in the starting lineup.

Brock finally got back into the game in week seven against the Denver Broncos, but the rest of the season starters were not in to join him.

Both Culliver and Ward missed that game with injuries they suffered the week before against the St. Louis Rams.

We all know what happened in the game against Denver. Peyton Manning threw four touchdowns including the one that broke the all time touchdown record. This probably would’ve happened regardless of who was playing in the secondary, but missing two starters certainly did not help.

The 49ers are finally beginning to get healthy, as they had their bye week last week. It looks as if the season starters are finally going to play together, right? Well, maybe not.

It’s pretty well documented how well Cox has been playing. You don’t want to take a guy who has been playing that well off the field. If the coaches decide to leave him in the starting lineup, someone else has to come out.

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  • All over 49ers’ forums fans are clamoring for the coaches to sit Culliver in favor of Cox when Brock comes back. Now that makes sense with how well Cox is playing, but fans are hoping for this for the wrong reason.

    Seeing fans call for someone other than Cox to be benched is a testament of how upside the 49ers’ secondary has been. Cox is a player that was cut last year, brought back, and then wasn’t able to crack the first three spots on the depth chart at the start of the season.

    There seems to be a belief that Culliver is playing bad and needs to be benched. I’m not going to say he’s been playing well, but he certainly isn’t playing bad.

    With Cox getting all the stats and accolades, there’s a mentality since that Culliver isn’t doing the same thing, he must be playing bad. That just isn’t true.

    Culliver hasn’t been playing great, but he hasn’t been playing bad enough to warrant for half the fan base to call for his benching.

    Here’s a separate solution for this complex situation: sit Ward and have Brock come in during the nickel.

    Here are the stats for the defense from Pro Football Focus:

    As you can see Brock is way down in the red regarding pass coverage. While, it’s a small sample size that happened to be against one of the best quarterbacks of all time, it’s clear that Brock isn’t back to his old self yet. He probably wouldn’t even have played against the Broncos had Culliver been healthy.

    If the coaches were to bring in Brock with the nickel package, it would allow Brock to get used to playing again, and hopefully back to last year’s form. This way, he won’t be playing cold and rusty against every single snap.

    If the coaches take this approach, it allows them to gauge how well Brock can play, and see if anything has changed such as Cox falling off or Culliver getting hot. There is no need to make such a sudden change.

    This solution would be unfortunate for Ward, but the 49ers are in a dogfight to make the playoffs, and they need their best players starting.

    Regardless what happens, it seems that the 49ers’ secondary is destined to be a complex situation for at least the rest of the season.