SF 49ers: Defense is still the team’s centerpiece
By Robert Smith
Even in the midst of an injury-filled season, the SF 49ers defense is still a beacon of hope in 2020.
The laundry list of injured players for the SF 49ers has certainly tempered expectations for the team for the remainder of the 2020 season.
What started as a championship-or-bust approach at the beginning of the year has now morphed into hoping for a slim chance at securing a playoff bid and a .500 record. And while all the injuries have had a tremendous impact on the team’s success or lack thereof, the SF 49ers’ defense has played remarkably steady football for the vast majority of the season.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has taken a generous amount of criticism for the team’s deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball over the years, including the perception that he rarely makes in-game adjustments or has success with them when he does. However, through 11 games this season, it’s the defense that has carried the team to its current 5-6 record.
The SF 49ers currently rank 11th in total defense, including ranking fourth-best in passing yards allowed.
After having 171 player games missed so far this season, far and away the most in the league, Saleh has managed to get terrific production from players like cornerback Jason Verrett (finally healthy), EDGE Kerry Hyder, and slot corner Jamar Taylor.
Unfortunately, Taylor was injured in the team’s 23-20 win against the Los Angeles Rams, suffering a torn ACL.
Verrett, a former Pro Bowler, was a talented first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers back in 2014. However, he has had an injury-filled career. This season, he has remained healthy amid all the team’s injuries and posted a very solid 79.8 Pro Football Focus ranking through 12 weeks. With veteran corner Richard Sherman returning and hauling in an interception last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, he and Verrett now form a solid duo at the position.
Hyder is a terrific story himself, entering the league as an undrafted defensive end from Texas Tech back in 2014 with the New York Jets. After bouncing around the league the last few seasons, Hyder has found a role with San Francisco. With the losses of edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford for the season, Hyder has given the team a legitimate pass-rushing threat, amassing 7.5 sacks so far in 2020.
And while Taylor had performed well in place of the injured nickel back, K’waun Williams, the former now joins the growing list of players who are out for the year.
While head coach Kyle Shanahan has struggled to find consistency on the offensive side of the ball, Saleh has plugged in players to his defensive scheme and the unit has continued to play hard, aggressive defense. In their hard-fought win against the Rams, the SF 49ers defense registered four takeaways (two fumble recoveries and two interceptions), handing the Rams their first loss at SoFi Stadium.
With the Arizona Cardinals’ loss to the New England Patriots Sunday, the SF49ers remain in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
After a tough matchup next Monday against the Buffalo Bills, the Niners have two games against Washington and the Dallas Cowboys, who are a combined 7-15. They then finish the season with a game at the Cardinals and against the Seahawks. With the pandemic orders for California shutting down the 49ers stadium and facilities, they’ll be playing “home” games in Arizona.
The team still has an uphill battle to secure a Wild Card spot, and much of their hope for getting it will hinge on the play of quarterback Nick Mullens.
But if the SF 49ers defense can continue playing well, they just may find themselves playing in the postseason in a year many felt was a throwaway amidst all the injuries.
Under the circumstances, fans could not ask for much more.