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The Athletic expects the 49ers defense to take a step back in 2020

Falling from second to sixth

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NFL: JAN 11 NFC Divisional Playoff - Vikings at 49ers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Friday, we went over how The Athletic felt about the San Francisco 49ers offense. Jimmy G and company were ranked just outside of the top five at No. 6. Today, we’ll discuss the defense. Losing DeForest Buckner was a big blow, but the Niners replaced the former first-round pick with another first-rounder. Nick Bosa, Dre Greenlaw, and Emmanuel Moseley will have a year of experience under their belt as well.

The 49ers had one of the best pass defenses in modern history, so it feels inevitable that this side of the ball may take a step back. Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic seems to agree:

6. San Francisco 49ers

Last year: 2nd

The 49ers’ performance last year was especially impressive considering they had below-average injury luck. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh leaned on suffocating zone coverages — Cover-3 and Cover-4 (a four-across zone with three underneath defenders) — while relying on the front four to produce pressure without blitzing. San Francisco traded DeForest Buckner to the Colts but still has Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead up front. The 49ers need Dee Ford to be healthy and productive and could use an immediate contribution from first-round pick Javon Kinlaw at defensive tackle. Fred Warner headlines one of the best linebacker corps in the league, and the 49ers return their top six defensive backs from last year, including number one corner Richard Sherman. They won’t be quite as good without Buckner but should still be strong overall.

I’m glad Sheil points out the Niners injury luck. The defensive line was decimated with injury, but losing Kwon Alexander—who was performing at a Pro Bowl level—midseason and not having a noticeable drop-off in production speaks to the talent on the field and Dre Greenlaw, specifically. Jaquiski Tartt broke his ribs, and that injury was the first time we really saw a chink in the armor of the defense. Marcell Harris was serviceable, but by then, the injuries upfront and Tartt’s loss were too much to overcome, and offenses made San Francisco’s defense look pedestrian at times.

The addition of Dion Jordan gives the 49ers a pass rusher that has experience in the NFL, though after watching Jordan, I don’t think he’s as capable of a rusher as Ronald Blair—the Niners need Blair healthy. Finding a way to get the most out of Dee Ford this season without him playing too much to preserve Ford’s health could be a challenge. That only puts more pressure on Bosa and Armstead to perform.

Imagine in training camp of August 2018—when the linebackers were Reuben Foster, Malcolm Smith, and Eli Harold—if I told you in two years, the 49ers would arguably have the best linebacking group in the NFL. You would have told me I was crazy. Well, here we are, two years later, and San Francisco has as strong of an argument as anyone. Warner is a star, and Alexander was equally as good in pass coverage during the first half of last season. If Greenlaw improves in coverage, which he should, the 49ers will be even more stingy this season.

There are question marks in the secondary. Will Richard Sherman lose a step? Can Emmanuel Moseley build off last season? Will both safeties stay healthy? Will they generate turnovers? Will teams isolate K’Waun Williams in man coverage? All of these are fair questions. At the same time, the secondary played so well last year that even if they do take a step back this season, the defense will go from “historically great” to “a top-10 defense.” That sounds like “first-world” problems, to me. As with most topics related to the 49ers, it’s all about health.