49ers defense: Maintaining fundamentals

Ezra Shaw

The San Francisco 49ers have generally been a fundamentally sound defense. Football Outsiders provides more evidence of that with their rundown of broken tackles given up by defenses.

Football Outsiders will be releasing their annual Almanac in July, but in the meantime, founder Aaron Schatz is posting various statistics they have tracked through their game-charting project. They have over two dozen people charting games throughout the season, which allows them to go into some solid detail about each game. It remains somewhat subjective due to the potential for human error, but they do some good work nonetheless.

Last week, they released some information on broken tackles given up by defensive players. They define a broken tackle as "one of two events: either the ballcarrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ballcarrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ballcarrier sped by a slow defender who dived and missed, that didn't count as a broken tackle." They did not include broken tackles on special teams plays.

The 49ers ranked third among all teams in broken tackle rate, with 3.4% of their plays having at least one broken tackle. Buffalo finished first and Green Bay finished second. The Eagles and Falcons were at the bottom of the list at 8.5% and 7.9%, respectively. ESPN Stats & Information had some info on this during the playoffs, when they pointed out that the 49ers ranked first in fewest yards allowed after contact. They allowed 909 rushing and receiving yards after contact during the regular season.

Among individual players, Patrick Willis finished sixth among linebackers in broken tackle percentage (min. 50 tackles) with two, and Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers finished first and second among defensive backs in that category (min. 40 tackles) with zero and one, respectively.

Willis's performance is not surprising given how technically sound he is. There are very few weaknesses in his game, and it stems in part from being technically sound. Over the last three years, Football Outsiders has charted him with nine broken tackles, which is particularly impressive given his ranking in total tackles each year.

The 49ers cornerbacks have struck me as sound tacklers year in and year out, even dating back to guys like Shawntae Spencer. While Rogers and Brown combined for one broken tackle last year, FO had Culliver down for four.

FO's numbers do differ from Pro Football Focus, who has their own game-charting process. They had Patrick Willis down for five broken tackles, Rogers for three, Brown for one and Culliver for five. NaVorro Bowman did not make FO's top or bottom list, but PFF had him with 13 missed tackles. I don't know if PFF counted any broken special teams tackles.

PFF had 49ers safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner as the team leaders with 15 and 14 broken tackles given up, respectively. Those numbers do not surprise me, although that certainly doesn't make them any easier to consider.

That is one area where the 49ers defense will have to work on things. The back-end of the defense will need to stiffen up if they are going to contain big plays. One of the negatives on Eric Reid's scouting report was that he can be over-aggressive in his pursuit of plays. This was an issue for Dashon Goldson. I think Goldson did improve on it by his final year with the 49ers, but it still cropped up enough to be noticeable. We'll see how Reid is reading and reacting in the preseason.

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