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49ers-Eagles recap: Antoine Bethea leads strong defense

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Led by safety Antoine Bethea, the 49ers put the clamps on the Eagles' high-flying offense. We look at a few of the key elements San Francisco was able to take away from one of the league's best offenses.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the San Francisco 49ers couldn’t score in the second half?

After being outscored by 49 points in second halves through three weeks, the 49ers turned a 21–13 halftime deficit against the Philadelphia Eagles into a 26–21 victory. The Niners scored 13 unanswered points in the second half, including their first touchdown in the final two quarters this season. It was far from an offensive outburst — one could argue the offense looked worse in this game than in previous weeks — but it goes to show those dreadful second half performances were never likely to stick around.

While the offense finally showed a pulse in the second half, it wouldn’t have been enough if not for an inspired effort by Vic Fangio’s squad on the other side of the ball. There was a lot to like about the Niners’ performance on defense — many of which we’ll get to — but among the most important was that they managed to stop making life more difficult for themselves.

San Francisco’s defense committed 17 penalties that resulted in a first down for the opponent heading into Sunday’s game, per TeamRankings.com, the most in the NFL by a significant margin. Against the Eagles? Zero. By not doling out free sets of downs, the Niners’ defense consistently got off the field. For the first 53 minutes of play, Philadelphia managed just five first downs and didn’t run a single play in San Francisco territory.

When the Eagles finally threatened to put points on the board with their penultimate drive, the 49ers’ defense saved the game by locking up two plays that convert in the red zone at a high rate. Looking to get someone free off a rub in the middle of the field, Chip Kelly called for three crossing routes on third down. San Francisco showed the type of communication in the secondary that had been lacking at points during their two losses, properly passing off the crossing routes and ultimately forcing a tough throw to Celek in the corner of the end zone. On fourth down, Nick Foles had nowhere to go with the ball on the play action boot and the prayer thrown to Jeremy Maclin in the back of the end zone went unanswered. The Niners’ defense played it perfectly, appearing to know exactly what was coming.

It was an impressive performance against one of the best offenses in football for Fangio’s unit and they excelled in several areas.

Putting a lid on Philly’s deep passing game. Going into the week, we knew the Eagles were going to test the Niners’ secondary deep and they did so early and often. However, more unexpectedly, San Francisco’s secondary proved to be up to the challenge. Per Pro Football Focus’s Jeff Deeney, Foles went 1-of–13 with two interceptions on throws traveling 20 or more yards downfield. A few of those throws were unforced errors by Foles — missing an open Maclin on a deep post early in the 2nd Quarter comes to mind — but the Niners did a great job preventing big plays and taking away what the Eagles wanted to do in the passing game.

Maclin had an especially tough time getting free against the Niners’ secondary. Despite connecting on a fantastic third-down catch late in the game, Foles’s efforts to get Maclin the ball mostly went unrewarded as Maclin caught just five of his 16 targets on the day. Perrish Cox, who continues to be lightyears better on the outside than he ever was in the slot, gets most of the credit for Maclin’s poor day as he held the Eagles’ top receiver to two receptions on 10 targets in his coverage.

Suffocating run defense. With the Eagles’ offensive line in shambles, the 49ers’ front seven dominated the line of scrimmage. Fangio opted to spend more time in their base 3–4 defense, even when the Eagles put three receivers on the field and it’s hard to argue with the results. LeSean McCoy was held under two yards per carry for the second consecutive week and the Eagles were unable to manage a single run longer than five yards. McCoy makes a habit of finding a way to shake enough defenders to break off at least a couple solid runs per game, but whenever he looked to cut back or reverse field, San Francisco had defenders waiting on the backside to bottle him up. Since getting gashed by DeMarco Murray and Dallas’s stellar offensive line in Week 1 — something that doesn’t look nearly as bad in hindsight — San Francisco’s front seven has been lights out, allowing just 2.71 yards a pop on the ground.

Shutting down the screen game. It wasn’t just in the run game that the Eagles’ running backs struggled to make an impact. Philadelphia’s dynamic backfield pairing of McCoy and Darren Sproles failed to find space in the passing game as well, combining for just two yards on three receptions (McCoy didn’t have an official reception but caught a backwards pass for no gain late in the 1st Quarter). Defending screens well is nothing new for the Niners’ defense, one of the many benefits of having started Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker for the last three seasons. But there has been perhaps no better screen team in the league than the Eagles under Chip Kelly and outside of a 12-yard gain on a screen to Zach Ertz late in the 2nd quarter, the 49ers completely eliminated this aspect of their offense.

Bethea’s standout performance. There were few, if any, truly poor performances from a member of the 49ers’ defense on Sunday, but there was one player whose efforts stood out above the rest: Antoine Bethea.

Amid a secondary that’s had more than its share of issues early in the season, Bethea has been its most consistent performer. Replacing Donte Whitner at the safety spot opposite Eric Reid, Bethea has unquestionably been an upgrade over his predecessor, maintaining the quality of run defense while proving to be much more reliable in pass coverage. Sunday was his finest effort to date. Bethea was responsible for half of Philadelphia’s four turnovers, stripping Zach Ertz of the football early in the third quarter and picking off a deep Foles pass two possessions later.

Beyond the splashy, highlight plays, Bethea made several tackles up near the line of scrimmage and did a good job staying over the top of everything when asked to play deep coverage. His biggest play of the day might have been the touchdown saving tackle of LeSean McCoy on 2nd-and-goal with 2:43 remaining in the game.

That was Philadelphia’s clearest path towards a go-ahead score on that series. If not for a great play by Bethea, McCoy almost certainly gets into the end zone and San Francisco is facing a two-minute drive with no timeouts to avoid falling to 1-3. It was an impressive performance across the board from Fangio’s defense, but no one had a better day than Antoine Bethea.