San Francisco 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt appears poised to return for his team’s playoff return, which should make a huge difference for a defensive rebound.
The San Francisco 49ers defensive finished up the 2019 regular season ranked second in scoring and first in total pass yards allowed, but it was pretty clear this unit was leaking a bit of oil over the final stretch of games en route through the Niners’ seed-clinching Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Injuries have been a primary factor here. And while a good chunk of the attention has focused on the healthy returns of linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral) and EDGE Dee Ford (quad, hamstring), one player slated to return shouldn’t be overlooked, either: safety Jaquiski Tartt.
Tartt suffered a ribs injury in San Francisco’s Week 13 loss at the Baltimore Ravens and has been absent every week since. In his place, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh relied heavily on second-year safety Marcell Harris, who flashed plenty of solid moments, including forcing three fumbles, yet was frequently a liability when asked to perform in coverage.
Harris is far more effective as an in-the-box, run-stopping safety, which was his forte in college at Florida. Yet Saleh’s 2019 defense has called for the 49ers safeties to be more interchangeable, and there were plenty of moments when free safety Jimmie Ward, not Harris, was down low with Harris over the top in single-high deployment.
This changed in the red zone, however, which is something Niners Nation’s Kyle Posey pointed out earlier this week:
"The 49ers played more single-high, vanilla coverage near the goal line with Tartt out. It made the team more susceptible to isolation routes and throws over the middle of the field. With Tartt in, Robert Saleh trusted both safeties to play more man-matching coverages."
The Niners securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the first-round playoff bye week benefits Tartt and the rest of the banged-up 49ers, including Alexander and Ford.
But Tartt returning seems to be nearly a lock.
San Francisco recently inked veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell out of retirement, subsequently letting go of backup safety Antone Exum in the corresponding move. This would suggest Tartt is nearing his return, allowing Saleh to revert Harris to a backup role again.
The 49ers defense should benefit as a result, too.
Pro Football Focus grades aren’t everything. But considering Tartt’s pass-coverage grade (67.9) was nearly 10 points higher than Harris’ 59.3 mark, it’s not hard to see why the veteran provides an upgrade.
Experience, too. Tartt has served as a free safety before, and the Niners pass defense was far more effective with both he and Ward rotating atop the defense; something which was nowhere near as dominant with Harris filling the same role.
Meanwhile, the 49ers will await either the Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings or Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC divisional round, which will take place on Saturday, Jan. 11 at Levi’s Stadium.