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49ers defensive review halfway through preseason: Secondary making strides

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The 49ers are halfway through the preseason. Let’s take a look at where the defense stands.

Welcome back for a second look at the San Francisco 49ers’ defense through two preseason games. There were a lot of question marks given the change in personnel and scheme. Halfway through the preseason, we are seeing some intriguing fallout from all the changes.

On Wednesday, I took a look at some general observations related to formations and philosophies, and then observations about the 49ers defensive line. Yesterday, we looked at linebackers, and today we wrap it up looking at the secondary.

  • It may well be that the 49ers have four safeties better than their second best corner - it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff think this and how they may utilise their safeties as a result.
  • The injury to Jimmie Ward has been a blessing in disguise for the 49ers as they have been able to get a proper look at their depth at one of the most important positions on the defense. UDFA Lorenzo Jerome hasn’t disappointed. Though he has yet to come up with an interception, he has shown up well in coverage and coming downhill to make tackles. He will need to get a bit more disciplined, you can’t see it on the broadcasts but he has apparently been a little undisciplined biting on PA. Nevertheless, Jerome plays fast and physical and has given the 49ers the option to use Ward wherever they need him most, potentially at corner.
  • Eric Reid was superb against the Broncos. He is undoubtedly at his best when allowed to roam in the box and this scheme allows him to do that. We saw him all over the field on Saturday and he made no mistake every time he had to engage a ball carrier. He is very similar to Landon Collins in that regard. He is also similar to Landon Collins in that you have to hide him in coverage a little. Unlike Collins, he isn’t surrounded by stud corners who can take the man coverage responsibilities from him to allow him to roam the box in zone the whole time. His first proper game action was undoubtedly excellent, but we will have to see how he performs when asked to cover people man to man.
  • Much like Reid, Tartt performed well on Saturday. It was clear he was trying to make a statement, as he too was looking to lay the wood all over the field. Unlike Reid, he also made a couple of errors. On a touchdown pass that was called back for a hold, Tartt missed a tackle in the flat as he got over excited and didn't shorten his strides for the tackle. On the whole his tackling was excellent however. On another play, he, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Brock Coyle all bit on a play action, and the Broncos threw the ball over their heads for a 15 yard gain. That mistake will absolutely appear in the film room this week. Also unlike Reid, Tartt allows you to do a little more in coverage. They had slightly different experiences against the run, with Tartt having to fight through more traffic when he made plays. They look equally talented as run defenders down in the box. Reid is perhaps better in the flats than Tartt, but Tartt is better as a man to man coverage defender and unlike Reid, is better as a cover 2 safety or a deep centre fielder. He gives you more versatility. It will be interesting to see how that battle plays out or if the 49ers simply bring Tartt onto the field in certain situations.
  • Rashard Robinson has taken a far bit of criticism for his performances some far. This criticism is partly a product of the hype around Robinson, hype that he has undoubtedly contributed to this offseason. As good as his performances last season were, he must make his life a little easier by being more selective when he presses receivers and trust his technique. Generally however, his coverage his been pretty good. He does however need to improve as a run defender. With the team using cover 2 looks on third down, he needs to make the tackles that he has been missing, or opposing offenses will look to attack him on third down by throwing short of the sticks and gambling that Robinson will miss his man.
  • Dontae Johnson looked good in his action on Saturday - in fact, you barely noticed him. He understood his assignments, didn’t try to do too much and did his job. Ahkello Witherspoon was the same. There were no flashy plays and no busts, he just did his job. Witherspoon also showed a willingness to get involved in the run game - an area where he had question marks.
  • K’waun Williams has also looked good. However, for all the 49ers’ corners, the real test will be when they are asked to play man-to-man. Asa Jackson was abused on Saturday and the 49ers backups (outside of Keith Reaser) are unproven as man-to-man defenders or proven to be relatively ineffective.
  • Reaser has had an interesting offseason. He was in the battle for the outside corner spot and found himself playing there against the Chiefs. Against the Broncos however, he played inside a lot in the absence of Will Redmond. His versatility gives him a great shot at being the fourth corner on the roster.
  • Will Redmond did little of note against the Chiefs before sitting out against the Broncos. He needs to see the field and play well in the next two games.