When 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans speaks to the media, it’s short, sweet, and to the point. That wasn't the case for the first time all season when Ryans took the podium Thursday.
Ryans used the term “eye discipline” six separate times:
“The eye discipline it has cost us some really big plays and plays that we shouldn’t give up, we’re giving them up because of the discipline with the eyes, and our guys understand that we have to get better there if we want to continue to play good defense.”
The 49ers are undoubtedly the best defense in the NFL, as they remain in the top three in every meaningful defensive statistic. But we’ve seen this unit give up the big play during the past month at an alarming rate, and it’s cost them, as Ryans stated above.
The difference in passing zones when using DVOA is stark but helps tell the story. The 49ers are first at defending short passes but 27th against passes over 20 yards. Last Sunday was the breaking point, as Raiders quarterback Jarrett Stidham made his first career start and completed five passes over 20 yards.
Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga have been the main culprits opposing offenses are attacking. We highlighted their stats since Week 13 on The Shanaplan, and it hasn’t been pretty.
Lenoir is giving up 11.9 yards per reception and allowing 62 percent of his targets to be completed. Hufanga has given up five touchdowns on 12 targets for 19 yards per reception. Here’s Ryans on Hufanga having “dirty eyes” in recent weeks:
“Yeah, it’s the same. He has to clean up his eyes. It’s too many big plays we’re giving up and Huf knows that. You have to clean up your eyes, especially when you’re protecting us in the back end. You’re the eraser for us. Your eyes can’t be dirty, you can’t be in the back field and he knows that and he has to get better at it.”
On the one hand, this is brand-new territory for the Niners. Giving up 34 points to a quarterback in his first start is unheard of for a top-flight defense such as San Francisco’s. But on the other hand, if you ignore the final score, there have been enough causes for concerns throughout the previous month. It felt like it all caught up to the defense at once last Sunday.
In the video below, I highlighted why the Raiders game is a reminder that the NFL is a matchup league. Las Vegas had Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller, and Devante Adams — three fantastic players when they are 1-on-1. Head coach Josh McDaniels put them in situations to win, and they did.
Eventually, the 49ers' talent and execution rose to the top. There are more than 60 plays in a game. The offense will get theirs. And while the Raiders hit on their fair share of explosives, those long-developing plays ended up being the reason the 49ers got off the field in the second half.
Kerry Hyder had a quarterback hit that nearly resulted in an interception. On the next play, Hyder got his hands in the passing lane, which led to a tip and a Drake Jackson interception. Finally, to end the game, Nick Bosa walked left tackle Kolton Miller back into the quarterback, and Tashaun Gipson was the beneficiary, nearly returning the throw for a touchdown.
Opposing offenses will test Lenoir and Hufanga early and often in the playoffs. Remember, these are Day 3 draft picks that came into the NFL with zero expectations. So it’s commendable the defense has been as successful this season, with both starting as much as they have.
But nobody will feel sorry for you come playoff time. Lenoir and Hufanga must hold their own. Much like most of the season, it’ll come down to the stars for the Niners. Bosa, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, and Mooney Ward.