The 49ers’ defense can’t use the absence of Jimmy Garoppolo, or the slew of other injuries on offense, as an excuse for its struggles early in 2018.
Missed tackles, the inability to take down opposing quarterbacks and not forcing turnovers have played significant roles in the 1-4 start and ranking 29th in scoring defense.
The 49ers are going through a youth movement. They have first- or second-year players at five of their 11 starting spots on defense while Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s new regime wades through its second season.
The average of age their 11 defensive starters is 25.3 years old. It averaged 27.3 years old when the team went to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season. Cornerback Chris Culliver and pass rusher Aldon Smith were the only players with less than two full years of experience.
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For Richard Sherman, currently one of the team’s most veteran defenders, he’s doesn’t believe his young teammates should be devoid of criticism because of their youth.
“That’s the tough part for me, because I don’t think of youth as an excuse as some people do. So I’m pretty tough on guys a lot of times and a lot of plays,” Sherman said Friday ahead of the 49ers’ trip to play the Green Bay Packers on Monday.
“Because, when you’re young, you can still play at a high level, and a lot of young guys do play at a high level. I think that just gives people an excuse, an easy excuse, I don’t give them that same excuse.”
The 49ers got off to a horrid start in their most recent loss, yielding a 75-yard touchdown pass to Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen on the first play from scrimmage.
Free safety Adrian Colbert, a seventh-round draft pick in 2017, bit on the wrong route, allowing rookie wideout Christian Kirk to streak up the middle of the field uncovered. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was expecting Colbert to be there, taking away Kirk as the deep option.
“That was like one-plus-one-equals-two kind of play,” Sherman said.
Colbert took responsibility for his mistake and played well throughout the rest of the game, as did the entire defense. The 49ers limited the Cardinals to just 145 yards the rest of the way and allowed just 2 of 12 third-down conversions.
“A.C. will tell you, he’d love to have that play back,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, “but the way they responded after that play ... I thought was really good on their part to remain composed and to continue to fight all the way through the game.”
More dispiriting losses could lead to the team’s emotions spiraling out of control. But there haven’t been any signs of locker room cracking. And Sherman, who never started worse than 2-3 during his seven seasons with the Seahawks, is taking it on himself to ensure the ship stays on course.
“As a competitor, as a person who wants to win every game going forward, you got to make sure your guys stick together and stay focused on task at hand, and don’t start to lollygag and get loosey-goosey and, ‘Oh man, woe is me,’” Sherman said. “I think the coaching staff has done a great job, Kyle and even John coming in and speaking to them and making sure they understand that there’s a sense of urgency that guys need to continue to have.”
Rookie linebacker Fred Warner, 21, is the youngest player getting considerable playing time on the defense.
“It’s a job and you’re expected to do your job at the highest level you’re supposed to. That’s why your out there,” Warner said.
Shanahan has continued to instill confidence in his team.
“Coach Shanahan has said before that we can win with the people we have here,” tight end George Kittle said. “Youth is not an excuse. When you get drafted or you get picked up, you’re expected to be able to play at a high level. ... And if you can’t, you can’t.”