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3 players who need to step up against the Lions

A pair of starters in the secondary and a trade deadline acquisition

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Collectively, the 49ers have to play better as a team. They can’t expect to miss nine tackles as a defense and win in the NFC Championship. This week, a blocked kick and a kickoff return will earn the Niners an early vacation. If Brock Purdy can’t control where his passes are going, San Francisco will flirt with danger for the second week in a row.

Everything listed above felt more like a one-off situation, primarily due to the weather conditions. There’s zero evidence we have of Purdy spraying the ball the way he did a week ago, so there’s little reason to panic about his play. However, there are three players on the defensive side of the ball who must step up.

Chase Young

Chase Young’s playoff debut left a lot to be desired. He gave up the contain on a couple of plays, leading to a Green Bay Packers first down. Saying that Young played poorly is an exaggeration.

On Thursday, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks highlighted how the second-level players, not the defensive ends, must do a better job keeping contain. But I thought it was telling when asked about Young’s performance, Wilks offered a, “I think Chase did some good things,” and moved on to how the entire team needs to improve.

Here’s a look at how often each lineman who rushed the passer over ten snaps won against Green Bay, per PFF:

Javon Kinlaw - 37.5%
Arik Armstead - 24%
Nick Bosa 21.2%
Chase Young - 9.1%
Randy Gregory 9.1%
Javon Hargrave 7.7%

In the same vein as Purdy, Hargrave’s performance was an outlier. Per ESPN, Hargrave finished with the ninth-highest pass rush win rate on the season despite being doubled 59 percent of the time. Young was only doubled on 12 percent of his pass rushes during the year. So, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

It won’t get any easier this weekend for Young. The Detroit Lions have arguably the best pass-blocking offensive tackle duo in the NFL. Trent Williams led all tackles in pass block win rate at 96 percent — the least shocking stat you’ll read all week. But Penei Sewell (93 percent) and Taylor Decker (92 percent) were sixth and seventh, respectively.

The Lions don’t help their tackles in pass protection, meaning Young will have ample opportunities to get after Jared Goff this weekend and make plays as a run defender.

Sacks will be the key to ending the Lions’ season. The interior pressure will be there. Young may be the beneficiary of a clean-up sack with his hustle. Regardless, he has to win at a higher clip than he has.

Ambry Thomas

Wilks said, “he didn’t have his best game, as we all saw,” when talking about his starting cornerback.

Thomas allowed all five of his targets to be completed against the Packers, allowing 20 yards after the catch, including a long of 27. That’s before the two defensive pass interference calls. Plus, he missed a pair of tackles.

It would be difficult for Thomas to have a worse showing against the Lions. Wilks used the word confident twice when talking about Ambry and said that Thomas’s resilient demeanor will allow him to bounce back.

It was Thomas’s first live game action in a few weeks, as he missed the regular season finale due to having surgery on his hand. He spoke to reporters this week about why he struggled against the Packers and why that might change against the Lions:

“I just feel like I had to get back into the groove of things. Me being out during that time span, not practicing. Those reps are important during this time. This week, I’m getting it back and getting into my rhythm.”

Thomas said he needs to trust his technique. When the ball was in the air, Thomas was least confident. That needs to change on Sunday. There’s reason to believe it will.

Amon-Ra St. Brown will line up all over the field. He’s quickly turned into one of the better receivers in the league. Wilks may lean on Charvarius Ward in key situations to cover Brown. But Brown lined up in the slot over 60 percent of the time against Tampa Bay.

The Lions’ other two primary targets, Jameson Williams and Josh Reynolds, are taller, lanky, length receivers who are linear athletes instead of quick and shifty like Brown. That bodes well for Thomas, who has elite deep speed and can run with both. Reynolds primarily runs intermediate in-breaking routes, while Williams stays outside the hashes running timing routes.

If Ambry has his eyes in the right spot and is aggressive, Sunday is a favorable matchup for him.

Logan Ryan

Ji’Ayir Brown disagreed with being benched, and it’s tough to blame him after the product on the field by his replacement. Wilks wouldn’t commit to Logan Ryan as a starter in the NFC Championship, saying, “That’s still an ongoing process right now.”

We have three data points of Ryan as a starter. He’s made one run stop while missing four tackles, with a passer rating allowed of 109.7, a penalty, and a blown coverage on 3rd & 15 that led to Ambry’s pass interference. He had another bust where he carried a Packers’ wideout last week instead of picking up the wide-open crosser.

The missed tackle on Aaron Jones last week was a benchable offense. It could’ve ended the 49ers season. It’s one thing to be on the field while not making plays, but playing sound defense and avoiding mistakes. But that has not been the case for the veteran safety.

The 49ers must ask themselves if the risk of putting the rookie safety on the field who hasn’t played since Week 16 — where he missed three tackles, gave up a touchdown, and got ran over, is worth the reward.

Brown plays with the level of infectious energy that this defense feeds off. Half of his missed tackles on the season came in that Ravens game. Despite allowing a near-perfect passer rating on four targets against Baltimore, Ji’Ayir still has a lower number than Ryan.

His awareness and knack for the football makes it an easy decision on this side. But we don’t know how meetings are, how Ryan is communicating, and many other things that go into the decision to name a starter.

If it is Ryan, the 49ers need a playmaker at safety. Brown had that potential and came made plays on the ball. Ryan hasn’t yet. Hopefully, that changes against Detroit.