There’s been a fundamental problem with the 49ers defense.
In between stretches of sound play, lapses in communication at key times have led to disastrous results, with receivers running free downfield for huge gains, or a bubble screen going uncovered allowing a receiver to stroll into the end zone from two yards away.
Most notably, San Francisco’s defense opened the last two games against the Cardinals and Packers allowing huge gains on the first plays from scrimmage, negating impressive scoring drives from the 49ers’ on their opening possessions.
First it was a 75-yard touchdown by Arizona, then a 60-yard completion leading to a touchdown in Green Bay. Coverage busts have defined the team’s defensive struggles throughout the first half of 2018. And many of them have stemmed from breakdowns in communication between defenders.
“(In practice) we’re communicating our tails off and we’re in the right places,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “And then we get the in the game, things kind of go blank.”
Said coordinator Robert Saleh: “For it to happen on the first play of the game like that, (it’s) very, very frustrating.”
The most glaring issues have come in the secondary, where there’s been a constant shuffle of players in and out of the lineup due to injuries or poor performance.
The 49ers (1-5) has had four different starting combinations in the secondary this season, while the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman has been a revolving door between Ahkello Witherspoon, Jimmie Ward and Greg Mabin.
Ward last week earned the starting job at right cornerback for Monday night, allowing the coaching staff to ditch the platoon with the other two. But Ward was the one of out of position on two crucial plays on the opening drive against the Packers, including that 60-yard reception on the first snap.
He started lined up outside on receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who ran a skinny post route toward the middle of the field. Ward stayed with him, instead of passing him off to free safety Adrian Colbert, who was in proper position.
It allowed Marquez Valdes-Scantling to leak up the left sideline on a wheel route from the slot uncovered, where he was an easy target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Valdes-Scantling was passed off by slot corner K’Waun Williams, who needed to cover Davante Adams in the flat.
The Packers scored on a bubble screen three plays later, largely because Ward lined up on the wrong side of the formation, leaving four Green Bay players in a bunch to left against just two 49ers defenders. San Francisco could have burned a timeout, but didn’t.
“I thought we were going to be able to recover and get to it based on where people were aligned initially,” Saleh said. “In hindsight, it’s always easy. But, the way we initially broke and the way I saw it happening, I thought we were going to have it covered and one (player) missed it.”
The 49ers wound up allowing 17 points in the first quarter and 10 points during the final two minutes. But they limited the Packers to a pair of field goals on seven possessions in the middle of the game while appearing to be able to secure the unlikely victory.
The difference between San Francisco’s defense and some of the better units in the NFL is consistency.
“For us, that first quarter, it’s getting very frustrating because when we play clean ball like we did in the second, third and 12 minutes of that fourth quarter, it was pretty good, pretty darn good,” said Saleh.
“When we’re not communicating and there’s a lack of execution, it is not pretty and that’s the thing that’s happening is we make the smallest mistake and it’s going for a lot, a lot of yards. But, when we’re locked in as a defense and we’re executing exactly what’s being called, it’s up there with some of the better teams in the league in my opinion.”
Saleh has come under fire for the defensive shortcomings, even though his group played well to end last season. The 49ers allowed just 19.8 points per game during their five-game winning streak then. This year, their scoring defense ranks 29th, allowing 29.8 points each week.
Unhappy fans, particularly on social media, have called for him to be fired. Saleh was asked about the growing online buzz about his job status.
“In our profession, there’s two types of coaches,” Saleh said. “There’s those who have been fired and there’s those who are about to get fired. So, you just put that to the back burner. We get it. It goes with the territory.
“I have tremendous confidence in what we teach and how we go about our business. I’ve got tremendous confidence in the players. I’ve got tremendous confidence in the assistant coaches. So, if you allow yourself to get in a world of things you have zero control over, which is people talking, it just takes away from your ability to do your best at any moment.”