Adrian Colbert: Why 49ers safety is key to defensive success in 2018

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the New York Giants during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Adrian Colbert #38 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after a play against the New York Giants during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers are asking second-year safety Adrian Colbert to handle a major role in their defense, making him a linchpin for the team’s hopes in 2018.

It’s rare to see seventh-round NFL Draft picks make huge splashes their rookie seasons.

But that was the case for San Francisco 49ers defensive back Adrian Colbert who, after being selected No. 229 overall in last year’s draft, probably expected to hold both a backup and special teams role his inaugural season.

All that changed, though, with season-ending injuries to veteran safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. Towards the latter end of the season, Colbert suddenly found himself thrusted into a starting role.

And he didn’t disappoint, registering 30 tackles and five passes defended. Pro Football Focus even awarded Colbert a 77.6 grade on the season. Not bad for a first-year defensive back, particularly one taken in Round 7.

Entering year two, Colbert has all but assumed the starting free safety position. His predecessor, Ward, is going to see time at cornerback during training camp. If that’s not an endorsement of Colbert’s potential moving forward, what is?

It’s a huge responsibility too.

Free Safety Responsibilities in the 49ers Defense

To understand why Colbert holds such an important role in the Niners defense this season, you need to understand what kind of scheme is being used by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Up front, it’s a base 4-3 Under scheme, with the linebackers shifted over to the strong side. In the secondary, Saleh utilizes a single-high Cover 3 look. There’s a lot of zone coverage involved too, although there are various kinds of combinations.

For a better understanding, check out Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen’s breakdown of the scheme itself.

One might recall Saleh stems from the Seattle Seahawks coaching tree, and few other teams utilized the Cover 3 system better than Seattle during its heyday runs earlier this decade.

Often, Cover 3 would appear like a Cover 1, with Seahawks safety Earl Mitchell patrolling the deep middle. Cornerbacks often press up towards the line, only to drop into the deep zone coverage in needed situations. Still, it gives the defense upwards of 10 players within the first two layers.

Bowen described how Seattle made it work, writing:

"Given the top-tier ability/range of Thomas in the middle of the field, plus the press skills of [Richard] Sherman and [Byron] Maxwell, Seattle can use this style of technique in its Cover 3 defense.But we can’t expect the rest of the league to follow until they can match the overall talent in Pete Carroll’s secondary."

“Overall talent.” That’s the key phrase here.

Adrian Colbert the Key to the Configuration

Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, earned the reputation for being one of, if not the best deep safety in the NFL this decade. His ranginess and ability to cover both sides of the hashes was essential to Seattle’s defensive success.

In a way, Thomas was the reason why the Seahawks could afford to drop a strong safety (Kam Chancellor) down into the box to either press receiving targets or guard against the run. And Thomas acted as a two-way “safety valve” for his cornerbacks.

This is the same role the 49ers are asking of Colbert. And you can get an idea how the second-year pro can accomplish this from this particular play against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17:

Or this play against the Houston Texans last year, where the 49ers lined up nine men in the box:

What you don’t see in the clip is just how far Colbert had to range over to jar the ball loose from Texans wide receiver DeAndrew White.

Still, the range is impressive.

Interestingly enough, Colbert is spending time this offseason training with Thomas — the exact player he’s trying to replicate in San Francisco’s own defense.

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not Thomas’ tutelage will carry over, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Next: Predicting 49ers' Week 1 depth chart, 53-man roster

Based off what we’ve seen from Colbert’s first year, though, it’s more than likely the 49ers ended up finding a gem at the back end of the draft a year ago. And considering the crucial role he’ll play this upcoming season, the Niners have to be feeling pretty good about the overall situation.