San Francisco 49ers: The pass rush-versus-coverage debate

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 02: The San Francisco 49ers defense lines up against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on October 2, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 49ers won 24-23. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 02: The San Francisco 49ers defense lines up against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on October 2, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 49ers won 24-23. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

It has been a hot topic for much of the offseason and gained traction again in recent weeks. Just what is more important for the San Francisco 49ers, pass rush or coverage?

To put it lightly, the San Francisco 49ers defense, as a whole, didn’t set the world on fire during the 2018 season. And while it improved somewhat as the season progressed, for the most part, there were only a few players who stood out and were consistent from week to week.

While it was widely regarded the 49ers should have a focus on improving their defense through the 2019 NFL Draft, free agency and securing undrafted free agents, the debate has continued to rage on as to what is the most important factor in a team’s defense. The pass rush or coverage?

The 49ers pass rush was ranked 22nd overall, with 37 sacks for the season. Twelve of those sacks came from defensive tackle DeForest Buckner on the inside, while on the outside, EDGE Cassius Marsh contributed 5.5 sacks.

Marsh has since been let go.

The offseason has seen a considerable boost to the 49ers defensive line with the signing of EDGE Dee Ford, following a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, and the No. 2 overall pick of Ohio State EDGE Nick Bosa via the 2019 NFL Draft.

Therefore, 2019 should see a marked improvement to the 49ers’ pass-rush capability. Having secured the necessary players with the skill sets to apply quarterback pressure, this should in turn lead to more interceptions and forced errors, we hope.

With a beefed-up defensive line likely taking some pressure off the secondary, will we see a subsequent improvement in the backfield?

This is a question that needs to be taken into consideration.

General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have made it apparent they consider a strong defensive line of more importance than addressing the secondary. Both have come out on numerous occasions saying they believe a stronger defensive line, with the ability to be effective in the pass rush, may help to assist the secondary which struggled for much of 2018.

The point of view they are trying to get across is that an improved pass rush will create more pressure on the quarterback, resulting in increased sacks, interceptions, turnovers and opportunities, with less reliance being placed on the team’s secondary to perform mop-up duty in the backfield.

And, while all of this is correct, a team also needs a strong secondary to be an efficient defense. With more and more quarterbacks having a fast ball release, a great pass rush will only get you so far. The 49ers finished the season ranked dead last for takeaways. They had only two interceptions and came away with 11 forced fumbles, five of which were recovered by the defense.

Both Shanahan and Lynch surprised everyone by not addressing safety during free agency, instead having the confidence with players already on the roster and felt they were “pretty well stocked there”. However, the fact remains that, besides corner Richard Sherman, the 49ers secondary received some of the lowest-graded scores for their positions across the NFL. Including safety Adrian Colbert being the lowest ranked safety in the NFL, with a 31.7 grade, per Pro Football Focus.

The Niners have shored up the cornerback position with the addition of Jason Verrett through free agency. He should be able to provide some valuable talent to the position, should he stay healthy. Along with taking Virginia corner Tim Harris in Round 6 of the draft.

So, just what is the most important in a team’s defense?

This is the question that will continue to split fans, with valid opinions on both sides of the argument. While a team can be successful with just a strong pass rush or an equally strong secondary, the equilibrium lies somewhere in the middle.

Having one and not the other will only get you so far. The 49ers have built themselves what would have to be one of the best defensive lines in the league. However, I am still concerned with the secondary and how effective they are going to be.

5 stats the 49ers must show improvement in 2019. dark. Next

At the end of the day, I would put the pass rush ahead of coverage for all the reasons Shanahan and Lynch have said. If the secondary can bounce back this season, the team’s decision to avoid signing any big names will pay off.

However, should they struggle again, look for the 49ers to be spending up big during free agency and taking those top corners and safeties high when 2020 rolls around.