Monday night was an example of what happens when the blitz doesn’t get home. To me, 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks brought pressure to not only make Kirk Cousins uncomfortable but to help protect his cornerbacks. Against 11 blitzes, Cousins went 8-for-11 for 138 yards, four first downs and a touchdown.
With the trade deadline looming, the 49ers must determine whether the success during their first seven games had more to do with their schedule or if it’s who they are on this side of the ball. As a defense, it’s imperative to make the offense snap the ball again. The goal is not to give up the big play and make your opponent drive the length of the field.
That’s what the 49ers have hung their hat on this season, as only eight teams have given up more rushing plays of 10+ yards. For as much disdain as there is for the secondary, collectively, they’re doing their job. Only three teams have allowed more explosive passing plays.
One could argue the Niners should be near the top after playing against Kenny Pickett, Daniel Jones, Josh Dobbs, an unimaginative Cowboys offense, and Philip Walker.
Against a team without its best wide receiver, Deommodore Lenoir was targeted seven times, and allowed four receptions for 64 yards, including a penalty. But three of those four catches against Lenoir resulted in a first down.
Charvarius Ward was penalized twice. The 60-yarder before the half is an interception in most cases. Outside of that, Mooney surrendered four other receptions totaling 23 yards on six targets, including an interception and only one first down. Ward is a competitor and a good player.
In the slot, an area that continues to be an issue, Isaiah Oliver allowed all four of his targets to be completed for 33 yards with a couple of first downs and a penalty that the Vikings declined.
There’s nothing wrong with Steve Wilks’ scheme from a big picture standpoint. But if he’s going to remain aggressive, he’ll need to find another corner who can cover. The best path moving forward, in my opinion, for the 49ers is finding a better athlete to stick with receivers on the perimeter, and move Lenoir inside.
Athleticism matters in athletics, and perhaps no other position more than at cornerback. The above picture is a graph of Lenoir’s athletic testing. His 10 and 20-yard splits suggest there's a good initial burst, but the lower jump scores tell us that Lenoir lacks a second gear. Pair that with a 20-yard short shuttle in the 12th-percentile, and you have a cornerback who struggles to change directions.
Recently, Lenoir has looked like a fifth-round pick. That’s not an indictment on him. Lenoir has already outperformed his draft stock and given the 49ers far more than they could’ve hoped in three years. Still, looking at the receivers on the upcoming schedule, he’ll be grateful to escape a game with only four targets.
Regression is on the way
For those of you imploring for the 49ers to add more pass rush help, you’re not alone. It wasn’t as if the defensive line didn’t generate pressure against Cousins, who was under duress on 35 percent of his dropbacks. But sacks are king in the NFL and if you don’t get home, your cornerbacks are on an island and that’s not the blueprint for the 49ers success.
Not all regression is negative. San Francisco came into Week 7 fifth in pressure rate and 21st in sack percentage, per Pro Football Reference. The 49ers can regress to the mean as far as sacking the quarterback, which would go a long way in them getting off the field.
Opposing offenses aren’t going to convert 61 percent of their third downs, including three that were over seven yards and two that were double-digits. That’s not sustainable.
If you were to play the scenarios in which Cousins either escaped a sack or avoided the pressure to convert a first down over, the odds would be in Nick Bosa and the defense’s favor more often than not.
But you can’t re-write history, even if the 49ers were unlucky as pass rushers. No matter how you slice it, the coverage was not good enough.
Cracks in coverage
T.J. Hockenson and Jordan Addison averaged three yards of separation on their 18 combined receptions. Brandon Powell and K.J. Osborn were over two yards on their nine catches, per Next Gen Stats. On average, Hockenson and Addison had six yards of cushion. So the Vikings’ top targets faced soft coverage and made the most of it.
This may be an overreaction, but Monday night felt like foreshadowing of what the second half could look like for the cornerback group. Sure, the hope is: Your defensive line continues to wreak havoc and that ends up with more sacks. But if that’s the plan, and it’s not a bad one, then your cornerbacks must play more aggressively.
That means more reps need to be competitive, leading to more pass breakups or contested catches. If you’re going to play off-coverage, that’s fine, but then you can’t give the receivers any ground post-snap. That was a theme on Monday night.
Through it all, save the touchdown at the end of the first half, we’re talking about a handful of plays that were the difference. Those plays are magnified as they were either a penalty or happened on third down. You’ll always remember the plays that extended drives.
But it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to a Vikings' offense that added more than a point on the scoreboard every time they dropped back to pass on third down (1.3 EPA per dropback) with a 69 percent success rate. Those kinds of results generally result in changes.
Changes in the forecast?
“Hey George Paton, I’ll take Patrick Surtain.”
“Yo, Ran, long-time no talk, what can I get for Roger McCreary?”
“Look, Ryan Poles, your season is going nowhere, take a draft pick for Jaylon Johnson.”
“Hello, Scott Fitterer, it’s me again, and we need speed. We gave you a bunch of picks for Christian last year. How’s a couple of late picks for Donte Jackson sound?”
“Martin, buddy, miss you here in the Bay. Kyle still hates that organization, but Benjamin St. Juste is appealing to us. Let’s talk.”
No team in the NFL has the luxury of going to the cornerback store, reaching to the top shelf, and picking the best CB out. It’s a premier position, and you have to overpay to acquire one.
Jackson and St. Juste are plausible options, while the former three feel like pipe dreams.
If the Niners are looking to make a change at the position, their best options, at least until the offseason, might be on the roster. Unfortunately, Samuel Womack and Darrell Luter Jr. are on the injured reserve. The team can elect to open each of their practice windows in the coming weeks.
The 49ers front office has a week to sift through their options around the league and figure out if the juice is worth the squeeze pertaining to the cornerback market. Is giving up draft capital worth it? Is there a long-term answer available? Are they looking for a band-aid for the next three months?
Or, is it as simple as the pass rush solving their coverage issues? These are questions the team will ask before next week’s trade deadline. Until further notice, the cracks in coverage aren’t going anywhere until a change occurs. Finding whether that’s in the secondary or up front may determine how the 49ers react.