Ever since the SB ended, I have noticed a steady shift about what our most glaring need is. Some of the recent posts and comments makes me think that we are now collectively in over-think mode. Let me elaborate:
If one had asked about our top needs after 3 playoff games, the answers would have been four-fold: Pass Rush, Secondary, Red-Zone receiving options & Special Teams.
Already, the Niners have taken steps to improve Special Teams with additions of Dawson, Skuta, Dahl, Moore, etc and the Front Office will continue to add more ST players through the draft.
The need for Red Zone options is mitigated by the addition of Anquan Boldin and it could be further resolved by adding a second TE who can create mismatches. Along with the expected development of Colin Kaepernick (47% RZ passing) and the return of Hunter, Manningham, etc, there should be more options for getting those last 5-7 yards.
This leaves two major unfilled needs for 2013: Pass Rush & Secondary. On both fronts, we lost some key players and their replacements do not inspire any confidence that we have upgraded at those positions. Dahl, Williams and Dorsey do not seem to be an improvement over Goldson, Sopoaga and RJF respectively.
During the 2012 season, our pass-rush depth (at DE & OLB) was questionable to begin with and it was further eroded when injuries hit Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. As a result -- in the playoffs -- our entire defense played worse than in the regular season, but may be not as badly as people might remember:
- Against GB, we allowed 31 points. Out of this, one TD was an INT Return and another TD was in garbage time when we were up by 3 TDs. i.e. a very good performance regardless of final point total.
- Against ATL, we allowed 24 points. Out of that, one TD was due to a total breakdown in coverage (something we almost never saw during the season and you wonder what changed), and another TD was on a perfect pass from a top-5 QB to a top-5 WR. That type of passing excellence is hard to eliminate no matter how good your secondary is. After allowing 24 points in the first half, we allowed zero points in the second half. In summation, it was not a bad defensive effort in spite of prevailing narrative.
- Against BAL, we allowed 34 points. Out of that, there was a Kick Return TD, and another TD was due to a massive breakdown in the secondary. This game was the first time when our defense was outplayed in two ways: One, their WRs won numerous 1-1 battles and made really tough catches against good coverage. And two, their QB smartly avoided our standard 4-man rush and made big throws throughout the game. It was also one of the few games when our defense just couldn't get off the field on 3rd downs and couldn't stop Baltimore from converting 2 crucial drives into game changing FGs. If you re-watch the game, you'll see the severely diminished pass rush from our front four as the primary reason the defense faltered throughout 4 quarters.
A diminished pass-rush is similar to a root cause affecting the system, whereas, poor secondary play is more like a symptom that results from changes to the system. I know most of us would want to say that a bad play is a combination of both those things, but those two things are not happening simultaneously in the 4 second span between the snap and the throw: once the ball is snapped, the play is usually most affected by the pass-rush. OTOH, before the ball is snapped, coverage schemes play a large role in determining what a QB is likely to do. So what's the lesson from the Super Bowl run?
During the playoffs, while both the Pass Rush & Secondary were sub-standard, I would offer that the starting point for our defense faltering was the lack of pass-rush as a result of injuries to Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks COMBINED with the lack of depth to suitably replace injured pass rushers. A reduced rush created tremendous pressure on our cover guys while playing against 3 pro-bowl QBs and very powerful WRs. If the pass-rush can be restored to the level of the first 30 games of the Harbaugh era, the secondary will automatically look much better. If we improve it beyond the level of the first 30 games, our defense will be even better prepared to play in higher scoring games.
The part that concerns me is the idea of investing high-round picks during Day 1 & 2 for multiple CBs and Safeties in order to upgrade players for 2013 and replace them for 2014. While I agree with the assessment that we should plan for the future in accordance with salary cap constraints, I would recommend that we don't prioritize that need over the need for additional pass-rushers at DE, DT and OLB positions. I would also recommend investing multiple high picks towards pass-rushers as opposed to only towards the secondary. Obviously, the smart thing is to balance between needs, value, and BPA in a rounded manner so that incoming players have a chance to perform instead of simply taking space on the roster as unused back-ups.
I think the pendulum has swung far enough in terms of accurately diagnosing our root problems from 2012 and how to resolve them in order to get better in 2013 and beyond: Pass Rush Depth -- particularly from DE & DT positions -- is by-far the primary need for the Niners. Everything else is secon.......WAIT FOR IT.......dary. Secondary!