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Shanahan on the CB situation: We’re obviously struggling in that area

Injuries, inexperience, and inconsistency plagues the 49ers cornerbacks

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Losing to the three-win Seattle Seahawks for the eighth time in ten tries had to infuriate San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. The Niners made mistake after mistake, and, in the end, they were too much to overcome.

San Francisco still sits in a great position to make the playoffs as they’re the 7-seed currently in the NFC heading into Week 14. But, unfortunately, the secondary suffered a loss to a position where they couldn’t afford it. Starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley sustained a high-ankle sprain that forced him from Sunday’s game.

Deommodore Lenoir filled in for Moseley but was later benched for Dontae Johnson. Monday, head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked how he felt about the 49ers cornerback situation and if he’d keep Johnson and Josh Norman as the starters:

“We’ll see how the week plays out. We’re obviously struggling in that area. Now losing E-Man definitely doesn’t make it easier, but we’re going to keep having the young guys compete. Hopefully they can get more and more ready. D-Mo [DB Deommodore Lenoir] did a couple good things in the game, but then struggled on some things also so. I’m happy with [CB] Ambry [Thomas] and how he played on special teams. I thought it was his best game by far on special teams, having three tackles on it and doing the right thing on those. And hopefully those two can up their game up and push Dontae and Norman a little bit. But those are the guys that we’ve got.”

Lenoir’s “good things” included a quick trigger on a screen pass that saw him make a tackle for a minimal gain. I don’t fault Lenoir much for surrendering a fade route 1-on-1 against DK Metcalf. Lenoir looked as though he was expecting help. The timing and execution of the throw and catch would have made it impossible for Jaquiski Tartt to help in time.

Lenoir’s touchdown allowed was inexcusable, though. He was caught in no man’s land, allowed far too much separation, and compounded his mistake by missing a tackle. After being beaten, Lenoir also had a pass interference call in the end zone because his eyes were caught in the backfield. Unsurprisingly, he was benched after a rough sequence.

Is Ambry Thomas the answer? The better question is whether Thomas brings more to the table than Johnson and how much he’s improved since the start of the season. NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco asked Shanahan if Thomas is getting more comfortable in coverage after being too grabby during training camp and if he’d gotten a better feel for the game after sitting out of the 2020 season. Here’s Shanahan:

“Yeah, I definitely think so. Whether it was the year off, I’m not sure. Not being able to do much in OTAs, I thought Ambry was way behind the eight-ball in training camp. It got him off to a real slow start, D-Mo was ahead of him, back then. And I think it’s evened out. I think Ambry has really turned it on here in practice this last month or so. He’s been getting better each week and he’s definitely got himself a chance to not only push D-MO, but to push the two starters out there too now.”

It’s challenging for any player to come off the bench and play when they haven’t practiced. But, for a rookie, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze to throw them out their mid-game. We saw that with Lenoir.

For Thomas, it sounds as though Shanahan is pleased with his progress and, perhaps, by default. He’ll get an opportunity. Thomas played in garbage time during Week 10 and 11 thanks to the 49ers blowing out their opponent. Before those games, Thomas hadn’t stepped onto the field since Week 1. Against the Jaguars, he allowed all four of his targets to be completed for 52 yards.

The 49ers are in between a rock and a hard place with Moseley out. Ideally, you’d hope your third-round pick is more valuable 14 weeks into the season than the veteran cornerback you signed off the street in September, a lifetime backup, and your sixth-rounder.

That hasn’t been the case all season, and it’s difficult to imagine that changing, given Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are on deck for the 49ers. Would you feel comfortable with the defense rolling with one of the unproven rookies in the secondary, knowing teams will attack them through the air?

Poll

Who should start at cornerback opposite of Josh Norman?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Dontae Johnson
    (212 votes)
  • 40%
    Deommodore Lenoir
    (334 votes)
  • 33%
    Ambry Thomas
    (269 votes)
815 votes total Vote Now

Shanahan said Thomas could push the “two starters,” meaning Norman isn’t guaranteed a spot. However, I projected him as a starter since the last thing you want to do is roll out two new starting cornerbacks amid your playoff run in December.

On several occasions, Norman was out of position against the Seahawks. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the cornerback turning 34 a week from today is struggling to stay in phase with high-caliber NFL receivers. The 49ers have been fortunate to be as successful as possible, with Norman as a starter this far into the season.

Here’s a video of the cornerback play from Sunday, mostly in the second half. Saying Norman and Johnson were overmatched is letting them off easy. Frankly, Norman played poorly enough to be taken off the field in the second half:

When San Francisco began training camp during the final week of July, their intentions were never to have these a duo of Norman and Johnson starting games with the playoffs on the line in December. Norman wasn’t on the roster, but Shanahan and Norman confirmed the two sides had been in contact before the season.

With a month remaining in the season, the 49ers are starting their emergency cornerbacks after going yet another offseason without investing valuable resources in one of the most impactful positions in the NFL.

While their cornerback negligence caught up to 49ers, I commend DeMeco Ryans for sticking to his guns. He’s going to blitz on passing downs, ensure his defensive line gets a 1-on-1, and, more often than not, win.

Sunday showed that even a great pass rush can’t get to the quarterback in time to hide the Niners' cornerbacks. On the touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett, Nick Bosa hit Russell Wilson in just under 2.2 seconds. Lockett had a couple of steps on Norman in the end zone by that time.

Since Week 6, the passing defense has trended in the wrong direction. The 49ers are 24th in dropback EPA per play and 15th in dropback success rate per RBSDM. In addition, San Francisco has allowed 20 passing plays over 20 yards during that stretch, which ranks one spot below league average.

Seattle was 5-15 on third downs, had three turnovers, and two trips in the red zone where they didn’t score any points. I’d wager over 70% of games where an offense has that output they lose. On the other hand, the defense was excellent everywhere outside of where some feel is the third-most critical position in the NFL.