Last week when the 49ers came back to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, an argument could be made that Justin Smith had the single most important play of the game when he stripped Jeremy Maclin.The Eagles were trailing but were driving into 49ers territory and were closing in on field goal territory, trailing by only one point. It ended the Eagles last second hopes and secured the victory.
This past Sunday the 49ers absolutely demolished the Buccaneers. They were executing in all phases of the game and it showed in the final score. While it is not quite as easy pointing to any one specific play as the "difference-maker" I would argue Carlos Rogers pick-six interception early in the second quarter was as big as any other play of the game.
The 49ers led the game 7-3 at the time and Frank Gore had just fumbled the ball at the Tampa Bay 11. The 49ers had held the Bucs to a field goal on their previous drive, but not before a fairly lengthy push by the Bucs that saw them move the ball 74 yards on 13 plays. The 49ers defense once again held up in the red zone, but it was still at least a little bit of a concern.
And so, when Gore fumbled the ball, while I wasn't panicking, I was still a bit concerned. When you have a solid team on the ropes, you can't let them up for even a moment. The 49ers have struggled with that in recent years where they'd be in a position to put a team away and then they'd let them back into the game. Sunday, that did not happen, and Carlos Rogers is one such reason for that.
In looking at Rogers interception, it is indicative of two important things from the Bucs game and the season in general.
1. The 49ers were in Freeman's head
Throughout the game there were numerous instances of the 49ers cornerbacks jumping routes to defend a pass. It led to Rogers pick-six in which he was in front of the pass to Kellen Winslow. It also happened to a more modest degree on Chris Culliver's subsequent interception in the second quarter. He was still a bit behind Micheal Spurlock but he was playing a bit in front of him, in part because he had a safety over top in Dashon Goldson. And finally, we saw several other deflections that were near interceptions.
There were some reports that Freeman was staring down his receivers a little bit too much, but it also seemed like the 49ers had schemed things out particularly well by adding a safety over the top in several timely situations. The 49ers secondary seems to be developing both confidence in their own abilities and also necessary trust that they'll be backed up when needed. Rogers' pick six was an instance of the former as he really had nobody behind him if he missed, while Culliver's INT was more of the latter with some safety help.
2. Carlos Rogers has been the 49ers best free agent player acquisition since Justin Smith
I won't say overall because I think most will stick with Jim Harbaugh as the best "free agent acquisition." We'll have plenty more discussion about Carlos Rogers throughout the season, but the easiest detail to point to? He has a career high three interceptions after only five games. I know this comparison isn't exactly perfect, but Rogers season reminds me a little of when Walt Harris came out to San Francisco and proceeded to blow up with a career-high eight interceptions. Harris was two years older than Rogers and a bit more of a career journeyman, but it's still interesting to compare.
Rogers brings a somewhat quiet confidence (post-TD dougie aside) to the team. After Gore fumbled the ball on Sunday, apparently Rogers told Jim Harbaugh "Don't worry about it, we'll get it right back." Two plays later Rogers was celebrating in the end zone. That might not happen every time the 49ers turn the ball over, but that kind of play instills greater and greater confidence in the defense.
Playing in the secondary involves a lot of issues of technique, but confidence is a major issue for defensive backs. They say you have to have a short memory to forget the big plays. This 49ers secondary had some troubles early but is starting to take a nice little step forward. We've seen different players step up over the past five weeks, whether it be Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown on some players, or Donte Whitner or Reggie Smith at strong safety.
And yet throughout all this, Carlos Rogers has been the constant. A couple modest mistakes aside, Carlos Rogers has really been quite dominant to date. Pro Bowls have only so much meaning but nonetheless he is on pace for his first career Pro Bowl appearance. For a guy who was considered to have hands of stone, he has worked hard to improve his hands and it appears the work is paying dividends.
This Sunday, Rogers and the secondary get to put their extra work into play when they travel to Detroit to face the Lions. If Matthew Stafford stares down his receivers like he seemed to do last night, I'm not sure how much Megatron's physicality will matter. The 49ers would still be susceptible to the deep stuff, but on shorter patterns, they are developing the confidence to contain on those plays.