On Monday, we went over the San Francisco 49ers midseason awards on offense. Today, it’s the defense’s turn. Turnovers and inconsistent play from the offense have put the Niners defense in bad situations this season. We’ve seen big plays given up over the past couple of games, and San Francisco hasn’t been able to overcome those. Even with all of the injuries, the 49ers are 10th in defensive success rate this season and 15th in EPA per play.
Let’s get into some defensive awards. We’ll use the same format: MVP, most surprising, improved, disappointing, and a player who could earn a future role.
MVP - Fred Warner
Warner hasn’t been the defensive MVP. He’s been the team MVP. Aaron Rodgers said he was the best linebacker in the NFL. Tony Romo said the same during the broadcast when San Francisco was on the road against New England. This is nothing new. In April, I wrote about Warner and how he’s the best linebacker in the game and how he’d finally get those props this season.
After the 49ers had beaten the Rams, Warner had the fifth-highest odds to win the Defensive Player of the Year. Warner is fifth on the team in total pressures. The four players ahead of him have at least 110 more pass rushes than Warner. He has 12 more stops than anyone, and we haven’t gotten to the best part of his game yet.
Warner’s PFF coverage grade is 90.3, which still feels like it’s selling him short. Sure, he’s only allowing six yards per reception and has a pair of interceptions as well as a pass breakup. But Warner has the second-lowest passer rating allowed among all linebackers in the NFL. It’s the plays he takes away where the QB cannot throw the ball that makes him a superstar.
Most surprising - How the defense has held up amid injuries
I mentioned at the top of the article how the defense has been above average this season. The 49ers are 12th in defensive DVOA. That’s after being down your two best pass rushers and having nine different cornerbacks play meaningful snaps.
Robert Saleh deserves a ton of credit for this season. The 49ers defense has the tenth-worst starting field position in the NFL. That hasn’t stopped them from being successful. This unit ranks 13th or better in yards, points, turnovers, interceptions, plays, and time of possession per drive. The Niners are also 12th in drive success rate. When you use context, San Francisco’s defense has outperformed expectations.
The 49ers have the sixth-highest blitz percentage in the NFL, at 34.8%. The 49ers defensive coordinator is overcompensating for the team’s lack of pass rush. San Francisco blitzed just north of 20% a season ago, which was the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. Kudos to Saleh for adjusting his approach.
Most improved - Kevin Givens
Givens could have been the most surprising, as he’s been the 49ers most productive defensive lineman this season.
“Kev, like coach say, he got some crazy stuff in his lower body. His flexibility. His explosiveness. His quickness.”-Kinlaw, a couple of weeks ago on Givens.— KP (@KP_Show) November 5, 2020
49ers wins I’ve charted this year with their snap counts:
Armstead: 15/367 https://t.co/gP1wGfYsmn
Given wins. A lot. There were zero expectations for Givens coming into this season. Many figured he’d pitch in 10-15 snaps here and there. Nobody knew he’d be an integral part of the 49ers plans upfront.
Givens has plays where he splits a double team. There are other plays where he pushed the offensive lineman a few yards back into the backfield by turning his speed into power. That’s been the most impressive part about Givens. He’s not winning with just speed; he’s winning in a variety of ways. The future looks bright for the former UDFA out of Penn State.
Most disappointing - Nick Bosa’s injury
Armstead has played too well to be disappointing, so I’ll go back to Bosa. He’s a superstar. That’s not surprising. Against Arizona, Bosa won seven times. Kinlaw and Givens have four “wins” in a single game, and that’s the closest number to Bosa this season.
In a game where the Cardinals were sending extra help towards Bosa, he still had his way. Mind you; this happened against an Air Raid offense that went out of its way to get the ball out quickly.
Bosa was the selection as it’s disappointing we have to wait another year to see him destroy offensive lines single-handedly. It’s disappointing we couldn’t see him terrorize the Seahawks. The Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas would have been a game where Bosa cemented himself as an All-Pro. As mentioned earlier, Bosa makes everyone else’s life around him easier. He’s the type of player that’s worth a win or two, and he’d have fans optimistic that the team would still make a playoff run.
A player who could carve out a role with a strong second-half - Take your pick
This answer should be Tarvarius Moore. With Jaquiski Tartt sidelined with turf toe, you’d think the 49ers would give their speedy safety every opportunity to play. Nope. Instead, we’ve seen Marcell Harris out of position in coverage time and time again. Why not Moore over Harris? Kyle Shanahan said because of their body types. Seriously.
Givens could be the answer here as well. D.J. Jones is a free agent after this season, and while it makes sense to bring him back as he’s not going to break the bank, Jones offers little as a pass rusher. The 49ers could use Kinlaw as the one-technique and Givens as the three-technique on passing downs and see if Givens can hold his own for an extended period.
The Niners have a handful of options on this side of the ball for this question. Harris could play better down the stretch and convince the team he’s a starter moving forward. Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley could prove to the front office that they are a part of this team’s future, albeit for different reasons. Even a guy like Jordan Willis could show he has enough skills to be a rotational player moving forward.
The linebacker play must improve. While he made plenty of plays last season, Dre Greenlaw has not built on his rookie campaign. Both he and Azeez Al-Shaair have to step it up against the run and in the passing if they are going to start next season. The two have been slow to pull the trigger versus the run and have looked lost in coverage at times. The good news: there is a lot of football left this season, and both are still young and inexperienced. Mistakes are expected, but both players must become more consistent moving forward.