The San Francisco 49ers faced a rude awakening defensively to begin the game against the Seattle Seahawks, as starting cornerback Charvarius Ward departed early with a groin injury after just three snaps of action.
Ward had been integral in San Francisco’s first win over the Seahawks, as the cornerback had shadowed top receiver D.K. Metcalf, fully erasing that side of the field, which limited quarterback Geno Smith to 180 passing yards on the Thanksgiving Day loss for Seattle.
However, with Ward out, cornerback Ambry Thomas assumed his place, while Deommodore Lenoir moved to the outside and Isaiah Oliver returned to play in the slot.
Earlier in the season, the 49ers had faced issues with the cornerback alignments, as Thomas had initially struggled, but Oliver wasn’t a significant upgrade, leading San Francisco to make another switch at the bye week to move Lenoir inside and start the former on the outside once again.
Thus far, that strategy has paid off, as Thomas has been playing the best ball of his season, while Lenoir fit seamlessly on the inside.
But, that plan deteriorated against the Seahawks with Ward’s injury, forcing them to play a talented Seattle receiving core without their best cover corner.
The early results were up-and-down, as Drew Lock found D.K. Metcalf for a 31-yard touchdown over Ambry Thomas to tie things up at seven a piece. However, it was actually pretty stellar coverage on Thomas’s end, but rather just better offense from Seattle to convert the play.
But, following that play, the 49ers settled down offensively, limiting Seattle to a field goal two drives later and holding them to just six points in the second half.
Now, while the 49ers got to Drew Lock four times in this game, while pressuring him 22 times as well, all of those sacks came in the second half when the defensive line was able to get home.
In the first half, while there were several occasions of pressure, it was more so a strong performance with their tackling and coverage that kept the 49ers stout defensively.
Deommodore Lenoir had a strong game, finishing with just two catches allowed on five targets, while nearly corralling an interception and breaking up two passes.
It was the type of performance that San Francisco needed with their top cornerback out and the 2021 fifth-round pick delivered.
Following the touchdown, Ambry Thomas did a good job of not letting things get behind him, primarily giving up shorter catches in soft coverage, which the Seahawks couldn’t capitalize on.
As for Oliver, the cornerback went from potentially playing at safety last week to stepping in and doing his role on the inside, recording three run stops from the nickel position.
How did head coach Kyle Shanahan view the play of his cornerbacks on Sunday?
“Yeah, I thought they were huge. I mean just such a challenge going against their receivers, all of them, especially, [Seattle Seahawks WR Tyler] Lockett and [Seattle Seahawks WR] DK [Metcalf],” Shanahan said about the trio. “You know how good Mooney (CB Charvarius Ward) has done versus them, especially versus DK here in the past. To lose him early in the game was stressful, especially when they hit him a go route on that series too, to get the touchdown, but that was about it after that.”
Shanahan praised each of his three cornerbacks, pointing to Thomas’s growth, among other factors.
“I thought [CB] Ambry [Thomas] had a hell of a game. I think he’s been playing his best football here, so proud of him not getting that penalty, not retaliating back. I thought [DB Deommodore Lenoir] Demo was unbelievable today. I wish he would’ve got that pick. I know [DL] Nick [Bosa] feels a little bit bad about that, but hated his retaliation, but we’ll deal with that on our own. Then I thought [CB] Isaiah [Oliver] stepped it up too. We had to move guys around and Isaiah’s been a stud. He’s ready for everything at any time in the game. Last week versus Philly, he had to go in and play safety on the second play when [S Tashaun] Gip [Gipson [Sr.] went out. Then it was kind of the same thing this week, just we had to bump Demo outside and get him back to nickel and those guys had a real good game.”
The good news for the 49ers is that Ward’s injury doesn’t appear serious, as Shanahan indicated that he could potentially play this weekend.
But, coming into the season, one of the biggest questions on this team was cornerback depth, especially given Ward’s slight injury history, as the 49ers were relying on a number of young players at the position.
While it was only one game, Sunday showcased a glimpse of hope in regards to the depth stepping up against a tough receiver core, which should come in handy down the line if needed.