San Francisco 49ers

How the 49ers are making changes at every level of their defense in 2019

49ers CB Witherspoon on idol Richard Sherman: ’We understand each other on a different level’

49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a Sacramento native who played at Christian Brothers High School, talks about the cosmic connection he feels with fellow aries Richard Sherman on Tuesday, May 22.
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49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a Sacramento native who played at Christian Brothers High School, talks about the cosmic connection he feels with fellow aries Richard Sherman on Tuesday, May 22.

It can be hard to glean meaningful things from an NFL practice in May.

The offseason team activity sessions are voluntary. Players dealing with injuries might be sidelined in order to get healthy for the slog of training camp later in the summer. Franchise quarterbacks, like Jimmy Garoppolo, might change how a coach orchestrates practice while rehabbing a knee injury.

Such is the case for the 49ers, who are dealing with a slew of injuries while the rest of us figure out if it matters.

On one hand, players missing valuable practice time means something, particularly for young players who need reps to kickstart their development. On the other, this is old hat for many veterans, who use the spring to shake off rust to build up for the coming season. The vast majority of the injured players are expected to be ready to play by the start of training camp.

So while Garoppolo hasn’t been cleared for 11-on-11 work – which is expected to happen when camp kicks off in late July – the 49ers have done more seven-on-seven drills with their starting quarterback under center. And that doesn’t quite tell the story of where things stand with Garoppolo because there are no defensive linemen bearing down on him, forcing him to make quick decisions to avoid physical punishment.

“They do get away with holding onto the ball right now (during drills) because they’re not getting hit in the neck,” cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said Wednesday. Which means we don’t know much about how the 49ers’ offense will look when the season opener arrives Sept. 8 in Tampa Bay.

Changes to the defense

But that’s not true of the defense, which has been providing practice field clues towards a significant overhaul – at least in aesthetics. The defensive line and linebackers are changing their alignments. The safeties are becoming more interchangeable, which falls in stark contrast from the past two seasons when there was a clear delineation between free and strong safety.

“We might look different,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said this week, “but philosophically, the overall foundation of the defense hasn’t changed.”

The 49ers’ scheme the past two seasons was regarded as one of the more simplistic in the NFL. It worked in Seattle because the secondary had three Hall of Fame candidates in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

San Francisco had a different version of Sherman last season – and a gaggle of unproven players trying to find their way. It led to the 49ers allowing a stingy 5.4 yards per play, 10th-best in the league. But the defense forced just seven takeaways and a record-low two interceptions.

Without the supreme talent in the secondary, it appears Saleh will rely more on deception, which could help take the ball away far more consistently.

“I feel like we should have done a lot more of that last year,” strong safety Jaquiski Tartt said. “But this year, we’re able to work on it, and then I’m able to get free safety reps and play in the box.”

Tartt spent parts of Wednesday’s practice playing free safety, where he replaced Jimmie Ward early in the 2017 season. Tartt is typically a strong safety hovering around the linebackers at the second level of the defense. But the new deceptive style means interchanging the safety roles, which could lend to Adrian Colbert working closer to the line of scrimmage than his previous single-high free safety post and moving Tartt deep.

In fact, Colbert was asked to gain weight so he can be a physical presence in the box when warranted. He said he ended last season at 195 pounds and is playing at 210 this spring.

“I’m the strongest I’ve ever been and it’s crazy,” Colbert said.

Making moves in the secondary

Which leads to another intriguing development this spring. The team this week moved 2018 third-round draft pick Tarvarius Moore from his previous post at cornerback to free safety, which is where he played during college at Southern Mississippi.

It’s unclear if the move is permanent or temporary. After all, Ward is out eight to 12 weeks with a broken collarbone. The coaching staff is limiting Colbert’s offseason work following a 2018 campaign that included hip, hamstring and ankle injuries. Second-year pro D.J. Reed is also on the shelf until camp rehabbing from shoulder surgery, which would make Antone Exum Jr. the only veteran with knowledge of the defense capable of playing free safety.

For now, Saleh is noncommittal about Moore’s position change, and whether or not he’ll shift back to corner once Ward, Colbert and Reed and back in the mix.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to training camp,” Saleh said. “Right now, with all the injuries and all the different lineups with all the guys missing, we’re trying to make sure that everybody’s getting reps. That’s something that we loved about Tarvarius Moore is that we drafted him knowing that he’s got great versatility where he could play corner and safety. Him being back there at safety for these OTAs, if he lights it up, we’ll see it.”

There’s precedent for Saleh making the switch. Colbert played cornerback when he arrived after the 2017 draft before moving to safety during training camp, where he excelled as a rookie. Tyvis Powell, who’s no longer with the team, shifted from cornerback to safety, his college position, last preseason and saw meaningful snaps there during the regular season amid the team’s spate of injuries.

Suffice to say, interesting things are happening in a secondary that’s squarely under the microscope in 2019.

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