San Francisco 49ers

Aggression yields mixed results for 49ers’ defense

Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen (88) catches a pass against San Francisco 49ers' Antoine Bethea (41) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. Olsen ran for a touchdown after the catch.
Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen (88) catches a pass against San Francisco 49ers' Antoine Bethea (41) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. Olsen ran for a touchdown after the catch. AP

In the NFL, quarterbacks tend to pick on young, inexperienced defensive backs. Last Sunday, Cam Newton and the Panthers took advantage of safety Antoine Bethea’s sophistication.

During the second quarter, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen ran a route he had always broken toward the sideline. Bethea, an 11-year veteran, knew that and adjusted his coverage accordingly.

This time, however, Olsen broke to the inside, and Newton hit him for a 78-yard touchdown, the longest in the tight end’s career. Bethea was eight yards away when the ball arrived and had no chance of catching Olsen. Earlier this week, 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said he had no issue with what the safety did on the play.

“Trust your technique; trust your training. Otherwise, what are we doing here all week?” O’Neil said. “We coach them up, and Antoine took a shot. Now, do I want it to be a 78-yard touchdown? No, but that’s what happened. We’ll learn from that. We’ll grow from it. It was a good play call, and Greg Olsen ran a hell of a route on him.”

O’Neil’s defense aspires to be more aggressive and opportunistic than systems the 49ers have run in the past.

Through the first two weeks of the season, San Francisco is tied for second in the NFL with six takeaways, trailing only Arizona, which has seven. (New England also has seven, albeit through three games). That’s already half of last season’s takeaway total for San Francisco that ranked 31st in the league.

“It’s a more aggressive style than the styles we’ve had,” Bethea said. “It starts with our D-coordinator and trickles down to the rest of the defense. And once you see one person get a turnover, it kind of trickles to the rest of the team.”

The flip side is that the 49ers can be exposed for big gains. The Panthers, for example, had seven plays of 20 or more yards.

Said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, a former defensive coordinator, of O’Neil’s scheme: “I think the defense still played well even though they gave up quite a few yards. I see them as very aggressive. Jim’s got a very good feel for mixing (defenses); he’s multiple. For us, we went at him last year when he was at Cleveland, so we’re trying to figure it out. I think he’s doing a very good job and causes a lot of problems.”

Rawls doubtful – Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls, who rushed for 209 yards against the 49ers last year, is doubtful for Sunday’s game with a shin injury.

Rawls is one of several key Seahawks who are nicked or injured. Tight end Nick Vannett and tackle Germain Ifedi are dealing with ankle injuries and also are listed as doubtful. Wide receiver Tyler Lockett (knee) and running back C.J. Prosise (wrist) are questionable.

Quarterback Russell Wilson (ankle) and wide receiver Doug Baldwin (knee) are not listed on Seattle’s report.

Rawls was substituting for an injured Marshawn Lynch last year when he had his big game. He also scored a rushing touchdown and had three catches for 46 yards and a receiving touchdown. Lynch retired in the offseason.

Christine Michael, who is averaging 5.0 yards a carry through two games, likely will start in Rawls’ place.

Et cetera – The only 49er who has been ruled out is offensive tackle Anthony Davis, who hasn’t practiced since suffering a concussion Sept. 15. Davis is the backup right tackle, a job that will go to guard Zane Beadles if there’s an injury Sunday.

▪ Safeties Jaquiski Tartt (knee) and Marcus Cromartie (ankle) are listed as questionable. They were limited in practice during the week.

▪ Defensive linemen Arik Armstead (shoulder), Quinton Dial (knee) and Glenn Dorsey (knee) went through full practices all week. Another, nose tackle Mike Purcell, is dealing with an ankle injury but was full-go Friday.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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