With the loss of Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea to a torn pectoral in the week 7 match up against the Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers secondary has had to work diligently to fill the void left by the 49ers coach's 2014 MVP choice. The most experienced players in the group are 6 year cornerback Tramaine Brock and 3 year safety Eric Reid.
After inconsistent play from the defense away from home, the group displayed progress in their first win on the road this season against the Chicago Bears. Although the team got a huge assist from Robbie Gould's missed field goal in the final seconds of regulation, the defense still improved with the longest play allowed being a 31 yard pass from Jay Cutler to Alshon Jeffrey in the first quarter. The 49ers only allowed four plays over 15 yards in each of their last two games which is a huge contrast to the game in Seattle where the defense allowed 10 plays of over 15 yards. Even in the win over Atlanta, the defense allowed 6 plays of 16 yards or more.
Jimmie Ward who attended Northern Illinois, and had many friends and family in attendance at the game, recorded his first career pick-six in the first quarter.
This was a really important game. This is the game I had circled on the schedule. I care about every other game but this game right here, the Bears game, I had it circled. I'm happy about the pick-six but I'm more happy about the win.
For a team that has been known for their takeaways, the 49ers have only recorded 8 INTs and one fumble recovery and this was the first INT in five games. In 2014 the 49ers recorded 23 INTs and 6 fumble recoveries, and in 2013 18 INTs and 12 fumble recoveries. When NaVorro Bowman was asked about the distinct drop off in turnovers last week he replied:
That's a good question and I can't give you an honest answer. It's just a football type of feeling. It's a new scheme. You take chances when you're really really comfortable, and when we get really, really comfortable, those turnovers will come.
When asked in his Wednesday morning press conference if Jimmie Ward had improved, head coach Jim Tomsula had this to say:
Yes. Very much so. But Jimmie, again, you've watched Jimmie. Jimmie keeps improving. Jimmie was playing last year and you know, what the heck, you have a young guy in there and this and that and the leg and the foot and Jimmie's fought through that. Jimmie is a guy, he's in Coach Lewis' office constantly. Constantly, ok? He's in in the morning, he's in at night, he wants to know this, he wants to know that, he's texting, he's just constant. That's what's exciting when you see Jimmie with the way he's preparing and the way he's working his techniques and his eyes are getting better. Those guys as a whole playing together. And Tartt, I keep talking about that. Everyone wants to say Tartt's our blitzer. Oh yeah, he can blitz, but he can also cover. He can play the safety position. And he's getting better. And Acker's getting better. And you see T-Brock there and Dontae Johnson. We've got some guys that are younger guys that are getting better. So, we are excited about that but saying that, we still have a long way to go and we have to continue to get better.
2nd round pick Jaquiski Tartt has also been improving as his snap count has risen. Since week 9, he has been on the field for all but 3 defensive plays. He has been delivering big hits throughout the season, including when he "got away" with a significant body slam on Jay Cutler, so much so that the press box actually gasped.
He got me pretty good. I got up from the play, I went through the protocol.
As their time on the field increases and their trust in each other grows, missed assignments should decrease and productivity for the defense, including takeaways, should be on the rise. Tomsula explained that earlier in the season, one missed assignment could lead to six. Players mean well, but by being almost too aggressive, and therefore getting out of position, they would jeopardize the scheme and lead to gains by the opposing offense. As he said on Monday:
With the scheme and the techniques, and playing together in some of the zone defenses, and where the guys are and understanding where the other guys fit around you, I think we're really, that's an area that we've really improved on, that you would expect to improve on.