SF 49ers defense lost its star, found another in Jason Verrett
The SF 49ers cornerback, Jason Verrett, has emerged as the star of the team’s defense, enabling Robert Saleh to build his unit around the secondary.
Through the first six weeks of the NFL season, the SF 49ers have underperformed expectations. Coming off a Super Bowl loss, they looked poised to be one of the league’s top contenders once again.
Instead, the team’s early stretch of play has erased them from most of those conversations.
Injuries, questionable coaching decisions, and underwhelming play have combined to leave the Niners in fourth place in the NFC West heading into Week 7. While much of the focus has been on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the early season offensive struggles, the defense has arguably taken a bigger step back. Prior to the 49ers strong performance against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, the team’s offense had been 12.4 percentage points worse compared to the league than last year, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but was 17.5 percentage points worse compared to the league than last year on the defensive side of the ball.
Last season’s title contender was led by one of the two best defenses in football and supported by a good offense. This year, the offense has been below-average, but a similarly elite defense could have made a difference. Obviously, it would have helped the team stay in games longer, but it also would have forced opposing defenses to spend more time on the field and potentially wear down for Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan to take advantage.
In 2019, the defense was led by one of the greatest pass rushes in franchise history. Consistently able to generate pressure by rushing just four linemen, the 49ers defense constantly wreaked havoc in the pocket. The plan was to do more of the same this season.
After trading interior defensive lineman DeForest Buckner this offseason, the franchise’s brass signaled edge rusher Nick Bosa could carry the defense. Even if rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw was unable to fill Buckner’s mammoth shoes, the coaching staff was confident in Bosa to make up for it.
Needless to say, it’s no shock the defense has struggled in recent weeks. Bosa suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the team’s second game of the season and that hasn’t been all. In the team’s embarrassing 43-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins, they were without their two best cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley, as well.
Fans have been quick to blame defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for the unit’s struggles, but an answer was hard to come by. A defense built around generating pressure on its quarterback lost its best players at doing just that. Without Sherman and Moseley, opposing offenses had every reason to pass the ball whenever they pleased.
How Jason Verrett changed the SF 49ers defense
Those recent struggles are what made Sunday’s game so profound. Most will point to Garoppolo’s three-touchdown night in the Niners 24-16 victory against Los Angeles, but the bulk of credit should go to the defense. The Rams offense went 3-and-out on 40 percent of its possessions during the game and never scored on back-to-back drives.
The SF 49ers offense scored a touchdown on their first three possessions of the game and went into halftime with a 15-point lead, but quietly stalled through most of the third and fourth quarters. While the Niners went 3-and-out on their first two possessions of the second half (and punted on their first four), the Rams had ample opportunity to get back in the game and even take a lead.
Instead, they managed just three points before a late Robbie Gould field goal put the game out of reach.
Sure, Moseley was back from injury, but he is by no means a defense-altering player.
However, the corner opposite him on Sunday, Jason Verrett, was.
Highlighted by an incredible end-zone interception, Rams receivers covered by Verrett were targeted just three times and caught zero passes. He shut down whoever lined up against him:
Verrett showed that he could supplant Bosa, for the time being, as the center of an elite 49ers defense.
Most fans already know Verrett’s story. A first-round pick by the San Diego Chargers in 2014, he reached the Pro Bowl in just his second season and appeared destined for NFL stardom. However, a series of injuries limited him to just six games from 2016 through 2019. Now he’s once again playing at the top of his game, chosen as Pro Football Focus’ defensive player of the week.
Verrett’s dominance against the Rams wasn’t his first strong performance of the season either. On the year, he ranks as the third highest-graded cornerback in the league, per PFF. With Sherman nearing a return to the field, San Francisco could deploy two legitimate No. 1 corners at the same time.
Last season, the 49ers were caught in an analytics debate about the comparative value of pass rush versus coverage talent. Advanced PFF statistics suggest that elite coverage defenses tend to perform better than ones with elite pass-rushers. In the span of one year, they have an opportunity to transform from a unit with elite pass-rushers and solid cover skills to a defense with elite coverage ability and a solid pass rush.
A secondary with a premier Verrett opposite Moseley is strong. One that pairs Verrett, Sherman, and Moseley is elite. With nickel corner K’Waun Williams expected back from injury shortly, the Niners could have the franchise’s best group at the cornerback position of the 21st century. Health would obviously be an ongoing concern, given Sherman’s age and Verrett’s history. But if healthy, the 49ers would truly have four above-average starters at arguably the most important defensive position.
Just a week ago, the SF 49ers season looked hopeless. Eight months after reaching the Super Bowl, their offense was ineffective and their defense was a mess. It looked as if injuries had finally piled up too high.
Yet, after Sunday’s win, Jason Verrett offered them a path back to title contention through one of the best cornerback groups in football.