Why 49ers secondary will still be a liability in 2019

San Francisco 49ers FS Adrian Colbert (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
San Francisco 49ers FS Adrian Colbert (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers didn’t make too many changes to their secondary in 2019, instead choosing to upgrade the pass rush, which makes the defensive backfield a liability this season.

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, of course, but the San Francisco 49ers secondary could still be a major problem in 2019.

This was certainly the case last year, as Pro Football Focus ranked the Niners’ defensive backfield dead last amid a season in which the defense recorded just two interceptions — a new league low in the modern era.

One might have expected San Francisco to make a swarm of changes. Yet the only notable roster moves were to re-sign oft-injured defensive back Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal, bring aboard also oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett on a one-year deal and then grab oft-injured cornerback Tim Harris late in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Instead, the 49ers chose to reinforce their pass rush, grabbing EDGE Dee Ford through a trade and using their first draft pick on Ohio State’s Nick Bosa.

Fine, of course. A quality pass rush takes pressure off the secondary, especially if you subscribe to the notion a defensive backfield is only as good as its pass rush allows it to be.

That said, there are reasons to suspect the Niners secondary could still be a problem this season. Let’s take a look, specifically, why.

First, the obvious: injuries. Ward has landed on injured reserve in four of his first five seasons, and he’s currently dealing with a broken collarbone. Verrett has appeared in just five regular-season games dating back to the start of 2016. No. 1 cornerback Richard Sherman indicated he’s feeling much better than last year, when he was still dealing with his 2017 Achilles tear. But we’ll have to wait and see how that translates onto the field this season.

Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers’ pass rush 27th in the league, which would suggest the team’s approach of upgrading this element was the right one. But cross examining with Football Outsiders‘ pressure rate in 2018, the Niners appeared to be in the middle of the pack, coming in at 18th overall.


So, perhaps, maybe the lack of pressure wasn’t the entire problem.

Over the past few years, there has been a tendency for quarterbacks to get rid of the ball sooner. Last season, according to NextGen Stats, the average time for a quarterback to throw was 2.75 seconds, yet the more elite QBs try to get the ball out before the 2.7 mark, unless they have an elite offensive line in front of them.

It’s one of the reasons why interior pressure has become more of a focus for defenses instead of relying solely on the edge rush. Edge-pressure upgrades for San Francisco could help the entire defensive line, of course, but it still remains an open-ended question.

Simply put, the 49ers defense still has a number of question marks, and most of those reside in the secondary.

Next. 5 reasons to be worried about the 49ers in 2019. dark

Sure, it’s possible Ward and/or Verrett enjoy a fully healthy season, and third-year pros Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert bounce back from otherwise forgettable efforts in 2018.

But it’s just as possible injuries remain a theme, and the Niners still end up lacking quality defensive backs, who still struggle despite the changes up front.