An interesting analysis by Pro Football Focus today: No team had fewer missed tackles in 2014 than the 49ers, who had 94 misses. They weren't the most efficient defense. That honor belongs to the Browns since they played more snaps than San Francisco (1188 vs. 1072). The 49ers finished No. 2 in efficiency.
Their position is especially notable since the two players recognized as the 49ers' best tacklers, linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, played five and a half games between them this past season. The statistic certainly reflects well on their backups, including rookie Chris Borland (108 tackles) and Michael Willhoite (87 tackles), who finished first and second on the team in tackle total.
Safety Antoine Bethea (86) was third and cornerback Perrish Cox (53) was fourth. According to PFF, Cox finished seventh among cornerbacks in tackle efficiency. He had four missed tackles in 888 snaps.
Individual efforts certainly play a role in the 49ers' overall tackle-efficiency prowess. But the bigger reason is that the 49ers defense played well as a unit. Players knew their assignments, minded their gaps, used the sideline to their advantage and funneled ball carriers into the right spots. That is, the 49ers were well-coached on defense.
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That will be one of the bigger questions as Jim Tomsula's staff takes over this offseason: How much defensive continuity will there be from Vic Fangio's defense? One change, according to multiple sources, is that the 49ers will be more aggressive as far as putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
That is, they will blitz more. That may be necessary merely due to lost talent among their front four rushers. Ray McDonald is gone and there are serious doubts about whether Justin Smith will come back for a 15th season. The 49ers also must assess whether Ahmad Brooks -- benched in two games last season -- is worth the salary he stands to earn in 2015. If Brooks doesn't return, Aldon Smith would be the lone starter remaining on the front line.
Of course, the benefit of blitzing less is that there are more defenders in coverage, something the 49ers took full advantage of under Fangio. Former cornerback Carlos Rogers told The Bee last year that after games, offensive opponents would approach him and ask what coverages the 49ers used. San Francisco's shells all looked similar but the defenders would do different things throughout the game to confuse the offense. As a result, the 49ers finished first in takeaways in 2011 and first in interceptions in 2014.
Having more defenders in coverage ostensibly also aided tackle efficiency. That is, a defense stands a better chance in taking down a ball carrier if he is being gang tackled versus if he's one on one. It will be a statistic worth revisiting after the 2015 season.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.