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What getting back Ford, Tartt, and Alexander mean for the 49ers

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We’ve talked about the emotional aspect, but this defense was playing at a historic rate when these three were on the field.

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

As the game gets closer, many San Francisco 49ers fans are getting more nervous. Allow me to calm your nerves. The Minnesota Vikings are playing with house money is the national narrative after beating the New Orleans Saints. There’s no pressure on Kirk Cousins and company, figuratively speaking. There will be pressure on Cousins in a literal sense. he way you beat Cousins is by getting pressure without blitzing. During the regular season, the 49ers were tied for second in pressure rate during the regular season at 28.7%. San Francisco blitzed the fourth-fewest times in the NFL this season. A large chunk of that came without Dee Ford, who is expected to return after the dealing with a hamstring strain.

Win with four (Ford?) and win the game

That number climbed 10% when Ford was on the field. The 49ers were getting after the quarterback at a historic rate when healthy. Last week was Cousin’s second win over a team with a winning record this season. Minnesota is 2-4 on the season against teams with a winning record. Cousins is one of the least blitzed quarterbacks in the league at 22.8%. For reference, defenses blitzed Jimmy Garoppolo on 38% of his dropbacks this season. The teams that have shut down the Vikings did not blitz Cousins. Using the Saints game as an example, Cousins went 6 of 9 for 122 yards and a touchdown. That’s 13.6 yards per attempt. The last team with a winning record Minnesota faced was Green Bay, who blitzed Cousins once on 36 dropbacks. The Packers were still able to get pressure on 17 occasions. Cousins finished 16 of 31 for 122 yards with 3.9 yards per attempt. Those were his game totals against pressure or not.

The Saints were missing a few players and tried to generate pressure with the blitz. That’s not what Robert Saleh does. He likes to keep seven guys in coverage and force the quarterback to make a decision, which is why opposing offenses struggled to throw it on the Niners. San Francisco finished first in the league in net yards per pass attempt, which is basically once you remove sack yardage, at 4.8 yards per attempt. That is a season total number, so it includes each game where San Francisco was missing critical players on the defense.

It’s been the same story against winning teams this year for Cousins. He’s dinking and dunking, not looking down the field, holding onto the ball and taking sacks. His yards per attempt is about a yard and a half worse against teams with a winning record.

December left a Tartt taste

You know those corny, cliche sayings that “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?” Jaquiski Tartt’s value on this team was more noticeable than ever watching the defense in December. Weeks 1-12 with Tartt in the lineup, the 49ers ranked first in success rate to running backs, and second to both wide receivers and running backs. He doesn’t guard each position on every play, clearly, but when Tartt is on the field the Niners can get more complex in coverage and the safeties are interchangeable. That wasn’t the case last month.

We saw touchdowns, big plays, coverage busts, you name it. San Francisco wasn’t San Francisco. Minnesota hit Adam Thielen on two deep passes to the right side, where Richard Sherman lines up. Thielen did a phenomenal job adjusting to both passes. It’s worth noting New Orleans blitzed on both passes. My point is when Tartt was on the field during the first 12 weeks, the Niners only allowed five completions to the deep right part of the field using Football Outsiders data.

Tartt and Ward being high school teammates means a lot from a communication standpoint. We talked earlier in the week about how Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner being on the same page helps them in coverage. The same can be said about the safety duo. In-play communication is critical, and that was lacking with Marcell Harris on the field. It wasn’t as if Harris was struggling, he just didn’t recognize and react to routes in the same manner Tartt did. Often times in the secondary the best coverage plays are the ones you takeaway so the quarterback can’t throw the ball. That’s the best way I can sum up how Ward and Tartt have played this year. Together, they’ve been top-tier.

Being a good player helps

It’s tough to put into words what the emotional presence of Alexander means. When the team activated him on Friday, half of the roster tweeted about his return. They love Alexander. It helps that he was really freaking good. When Alexander played, his range in coverage was second to none. He was right there, if not a step ahead of Warner as a player and we saw how Warner’s season turned out. The two would bait quarterbacks into throwing short routes, or just take the intended target away. Alexander has the third lowest passer rating against among all linebackers with at least 20 targets in the NFL.

With Alexander on the field, the 49ers pass defense had a success rate of 38%. That was tied for the best in the league with New England. Without him, that number jumped to 49%. I thought Alexander’s aggressiveness was missing against the run. In between the guards, the 49ers rushing success rate was 37%. Despite being undersized, Alexander was a hammer. He’d fill his gap, run full speed into the lineman if need be, and allow someone else to make a play. It wasn’t always flashy or pretty (plenty of times when he ended up on the ground and made a pile), but he did his job. On defense, the goal is 11 players doing their job. With Kwon out, the success rate jumped to 50%. You can adjust some of that to the difference in opponent, but, again, Alexander doing his job and communicating to others so they can do their job is what made the defense so dangerous—which should be on full display today.