At some point over the last 17 months, Emmanuel Moseley earned the trust of the 49ers coaching staff and his teammates in a way that has the team feeling confident about his immense challenge coming Monday night.
“He just doesn’t back down from anybody,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who’s been an ardent supporter of Moseley’s since starter Ahkello Witherspoon went down with a foot injury Week 3 against the Steelers.
“He’s going to be scrappy, he’s going to be competitive, he’s going to be close to the ball and he’s going to have a chance to make a play on the football, and that’s all you can ask for at the corner spot.”
Moseley, an undrafted corner signed in May 2018, is expected to make his starting debut on “Monday Night Football” against the Cleveland Browns, who boast one of the most talented offenses in the NFL headlined by Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Baker Mayfield and Jarvis Landry, who returned to practice Friday after being cleared by concussion protocol.
Moseley’s test offers a reflection of how San Francisco’s front office gauged its secondary throughout the offseason. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, of course, devoted a slew of resources into improving the front seven rather than making drastic changes in the secondary after the 49ers had one of the worst passing defenses in the league in 2018.
The results have been positive, so far.
Moseley key to 49ers defensive edge
The 49ers rank third in the NFL allowing just 283 yards per game and 208 yards through the air. The additions of edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford have been effective, though they haven’t gone up against an offense as talented as Cleveland’s during their first three games. And Monday will mark the first time the depth of the secondary will truly be tested without Witherspoon, who was in the midst of the best three-game stretch of his career.
Moseley was the second choice to replace Witherspoon. The team signed former first-round pick Jason Verrett for just that scenario. But Verrett was placed on injured reserve Thursday when he aggravated a knee injury that first plagued him in 2016 with the Chargers. He was replaced by Moseley against Pittsburgh after getting called for a long pass interference penalty and then surrendering a 39-yard touchdown.
“E-Man’s got a great mindset to him,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He’s not afraid of anything and that’s the number one prerequisite for a corner is you can’t be scared. He’s also got a very short memory so if he does get beat he’s able to line up as if nothing happened and keep grinding. There’s no fear in his football game, he’s shown over from last year.”
But Moseley is still an unknown. He’s performed well in training camp and has stood out in games on special teams by making impressive tackles in punt and kickoff coverage. It just remains to be seen if that will translate into success as a key member on defense against top-tier talent over a full game.
Moseley has played just 45 defensive snaps. He spent most of last season on the practice squad before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury on his third special teams play while covering a kickoff in the Nov. 1 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Moseley attended the University of Tennessee and played in a slew of high profile games in the SEC. He went undrafted largely because he lacked ideal size (5-11, 184) and because he wasn’t considered a strong tackler.
He’s improved his physicality since coming to the NFL, which is an encouraging sign given his physical explosiveness. Moseley ran a quick 4.42-second 40-yard dash and logged a 38.5-inch vertical jump at his pro day. His physicality comes from his mindset.
“I just know in my head, I’m a big guy,” he said this week. “I tell myself I’m a big guy so I go out there and throw (my body) around.”
49ers change up defensive looks
Also key in defending the Browns’ passing offense will be adjustments the 49ers have made schematically.
The secondary is disguising coverages far more often than the last two seasons, showing certain looks before the snap and moving into something else immediately after.
New secondary coach Joe Woods, who was the Broncos’ defensive coordinator the past two years, was given the title of defensive passing game coordinator when he joined the staff this offseason. He helped make things more difficult on quarterbacks by using disguises which often gives the pass rush an extra beat to break down the pocket.
“Joe’s brought a lot of good stuff to the table,” Saleh said. “What we’ve been able to do is just implement more coverages in terms of being more balanced with what we have. What Joe’s brought to us with regards to technique and fundamentals and all that stuff, he’s been fantastic.”
There could be another significant change coming to San Francisco’s secondary Monday. The team hasn’t revealed who will start at free safety now that Jimmie Ward is healthy and no longer needing an awkward cast to protect his right ring finger he fractured during an August practice.
Ward has long been pegged to start at free safety. But that spot has gone to Tarvarius Moore while Ward has been hurt. Moore has played mostly well since moving from cornerback to safety, his college position, in the offseason. There have, however, been a couple bad angles that led to missed tackles on long touchdowns. The most notable misses came on JuJu Smith-Schuster’s long touchdown against the Steelers before the bye and Week 2 against the Bengals when speedy receiver John Ross scored from 66 yards away.
“When the ball is thrown,” said Saleh, “eyes before feet, get on course, track the near hip and tackle. That’s something (Moore’s) working on.”
Ward was coy when asked if he’ll be starting at free safety, as he did the last time he was fully healthy in the third preseason game in Kansas City. He didn’t want to reveal if he was starting, or which position he would play, because he didn’t want to give the Browns an advantage in their preparation. The coaching staff has lauded Ward for his versatility. He can play anywhere in the secondary.
“Because you’ll have to prepare for me in different ways,” Ward said. “And then on top of that, you got to prepare for all the rest of the guys that’s been doing great each week. So now we’re down a corner, so they don’t know who’s at corner, they don’t know who’s at nickel, they don’t know who’s at safety.”