With the start of the new league year yesterday afternoon, we were hit with a dizzying array of NFL happenings that were finally worth discussing. The first day of free agency is typically a day in which we see an exorbitant amount of money spent and poor decisions made. In this regard, yesterday was no different. However, it's also a day in which we typically see relatively little happening in Ninerland. As we have come to expect, no top tier free agents signed by the 49ers, but that doesn't mean they weren't active. Trades were made, players were re-signed. The move that will have the largest impact on the field in 2014 was the signing of former Colts' safety Antoine Bethea.
Bethea will be taking over for the departed Donte Whitner at the safety spot opposite Eric Reid. What should we expect as the 49ers transition from one veteran safety to another? Using Pro Football Focus's individual game grades as a reference point, I went back and watched a couple of Bethea's best and worst games from the 2013 season to get an idea of the range of performance we should expect from our newest defensive starter. Let's start with the area of Bethea's game that I think is his biggest strength: run support.
Bethea against the run
The more I watched Bethea play, the more I felt like he is a player that is more comfortable the closer he gets to the line of scrimmage. Bethea lined up in the box on 37.3 percent of his snaps last season according to PFF's data – about middle of the pack for safeties who played at least 50 percent their team's snaps but a good amount more than either Whitner (21.4 percent) or Reid (9.5 percent), who were both in the bottom 10 among qualifying safeties. He appeared comfortable both coming into the box late and filling run lanes as well as lining up in the box and taking on blockers.
On this play from Indianapolis's Week 7 game against the Broncos, Bethea is about 12 yards off the ball at the time of the snap. He recognizes the run call immediately, sticks his foot in the ground and flies up the field to fill the backside rushing lane. When Knowshon Moreno cuts back, Bethea is there to meet him and make the tackle for a short gain.
Later in that same game, with the Broncos facing a third-and-two, Bethea again makes his presence known in the run game. Here, he begins creeping up towards the line of scrimmage right before the snap and is able to come around the edge before Wes Welker has a chance to get a piece of him and makes the stop before Moreno can pick up the first down.
These types of plays showed up often in the games that I watched. Bethea was very good at diagnosing whether the play was a run or pass quickly after the snap and was not hesitant to come up and make plays in the run game. He may not pack quite the power that Whitner did, but Bethea is a very sound tackler and takes good angles to the ballcarrier more often than not. He also displayed good speed in tracking ballcarriers to the sideline, as he did on this play midway through the fourth quarter of the Colts' Wild Card game against the Chiefs.
Bethea initially lines up at linebacker depth in the weak side A-gap. He's clearly responsible for Dexter McCluster – who's aligned as the lone back in the backfield here – on the play and as soon as McCluster starts toward the right on the outside zone play, Bethea is on his horse. He mirrors McCluster – who's not exactly a slow person in case you were curious – all the way to the sideline, sticking on his inside hip to prevent the cutback, before forcing him out of bounds for a short gain.
Especially considering the caliber of players that the 49ers have in their front seven, I hardly expect there to be any issues with their run defense by swapping Whitner for Bethea. He's a very capable and willing run defender. There may be fewer big hits and splash plays, but he appears to be a reliable and sound defender in this area.
Bethea defending the pass
Run defense was never the problem with Whitner, it was his lack of coverage ability that was his biggest downfall. Unfortunately, from the tape that I watched, I'm not confident that is going to change with Bethea around. The Colts asked him to do a variety of things within their defense, many of which the 49ers are also likely to ask of him. He spent much of his time as a deep, single-high free safety in Indianapolis's cover one coverages. Bethea also spent time playing robber coverage (roaming the intermediate, middle part of the field), quarters coverage and even in the slot in man coverage on both wide receivers and tight ends. All of these are things that Bethea will have to do in San Francisco's defense. The problem is I don't know that he really excels at doing any one of those things at this point in his career.
Most of Bethea's problems in coverage seem to originate from poor footwork and change of direction skills. As you saw in the above GIF of Bethea chasing McCluster to the sideline, Bethea can move well in a straight line. But when forced to change direction, as you have to be able to do in pass coverage, Bethea struggles.
Going back to that Denver game, midway through the first quarter Bethea ends up in coverage on Eric Decker, who is running a corner route from a tight alignment. Bethea is initially in good position. Because of inside help from the linebacker, Bethea has outside leverage and should be in a good spot to make a play on Decker's out-breaking route. However, when Decker reaches the top of his route and is about to break towards the outside, Bethea takes a false step inside and effectively forces himself to turn nearly 180 degrees back to the sideline. He falls down in the process and Decker hauls in the pass for an easy score. With better footwork at the top of the route, this is a play that should be an incompletion.
In Indianapolis's Week 12 game in Arizona, poor footwork on Bethea's behalf again led to a score. The Colts are in a cover one, man coverage with Bethea as the deep safety. As Carson Palmer drops back, he looks to his right towards the post route by Michael Floyd and the corner route by Larry Fitzgerald. Bethea gets good depth on his drop, staying over the top of everything and leaving him in position to make a play towards either route. But as Palmer releases the pass, Bethea stops for a brief moment and actually takes a couple of steps forward before breaking towards Fitzgerald. These wasted movements leave him trailing Fitzgerald and unable to make a play on the ball.
Later in that same game, Bethea was matched up in man coverage with Cardinals tight end Rob Housler. Bethea appears to be expecting Housler to run down the field as he looks to turn and run almost immediately despite having a decent cushion. When Housler breaks outside, Bethea is again in a position where he is forced to turn 180 degrees to get where he needs to be. Housler is able to get plenty of separation and makes the easy reception.
There were several more similar plays from the Denver game. Bethea was asked to cover Welker in the slot on a few occasions and it didn't go so well. At first I didn't put too much into it; Welker will make a lot of people look silly in the slot. But Rob Housler is a different story. There's really no reason he should be getting that much separation on a simple five-yard out.
Bethea's ability to track the ball on deep routes also leaves something to be desired. Against the Texans in Week 9, Case Keenum is looking to hit Andre Johnson on a shot play off of play action. As previously mentioned, Bethea does a good job with play recognition and doesn't bite on the play action fake. Knowing that he has help to the outside from corner Vontae Davis, Bethea maintains inside leverage on Johnson and is in good position when Johnson makes his final break towards the post. But once Bethea begins to look back for the ball, he slows for a moment. He's unable to get going quick enough once he locates the ball and that's enough for Johnson to get behind him and make the fingertip snag for the touchdown.
Putting it all together
Four games is by no means enough to paint a complete picture of what a player can do. However, I do feel this was a representative sample from Bethea's 2013 season as I was able to see both some of his best and worst outings. On many levels, Bethea appears to be somewhat of a poor man's Whitner – quite literally considering the contracts they each received, but we'll get to that – as he is an effective and willing run defender but can be a liability at times on the backend in pass coverage.
The standard description of Bethea in articles I've read since the signing is that he is a smart, reliable veteran player. Someone who isn't going to make a lot of splashy plays, but someone who won't give them up either. I'm not sure I completely agree with that at this point. He does appear to be an intelligent player. He diagnoses plays quickly and correctly and is often where he needs to be. I didn't see any obvious blown coverages or assignments in the games I watched. Bethea certainly doesn't make a lot of big plays. He has just four interceptions in the past four seasons and has never had more than six passes defensed in a season, per PFF's data.
The problem is that he does give up big plays, as highlighted above multiple times, often failing to take advantage of the good position he had put himself in to begin with. It's certainly possible that I just so happened to see most of the big plays he allowed in the games that I watched. He does have a reputation of being at least average among safeties in pass coverage. But I'm worried that reputation is dated and his best days are behind him. After ranking well earlier in his career, Bethea has received a negative pass coverage grade from PFF in each of the last three seasons, with last year being the worst.
This all begs the question, why make the move from Whitner to Bethea? The obvious answer is money. As of writing this, I have yet to see final numbers on Bethea's contract, but it appears the average value will be a couple million per year less with the guaranteed amount about half of what Whitner received. And that alone isn't a bad answer. Whitner was not worth paying the amount he received from Cleveland, and San Francisco would have been stupid to give him that deal. I do wonder if the 49ers might have been able to find better value elsewhere, though. Bethea is a full year older than Whitner – he'll be entering his age 30 season this year – and it's unlikely that he's going to improve by any significant amount going forward.
The one thing that does leave me optimistic is the defense and situation Bethea will be joining. The surrounding pieces are far better in San Francisco than they were for Bethea in Indianapolis. He has a talented safety opposite of him in Eric Reid, a front seven that shouldn't force him to stay in coverage for extended periods and a coaching staff that does a fantastic job of putting players in positions to succeed. Bethea may not be the long term solution at safety, but I expect him to be able to hold down the fort for a year or two while the 49ers look for that solution.