When St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis drifted to his right early in the second quarter in Week 9, the 49ers’ Antoine Bethea drifted with him.
The veteran safety was responsible for the shallow receiver, tight end Corey Harkey. But Bethea also knew he’d be able to stop Harkey for a minimal gain if the ball went in that direction.
Bethea instead hedged his bets, playing midway between Harkey and the deeper receiver, Tavon Austin. When the Rams quarterback tried for the bigger play, Bethea backpedaled a few steps, leaped and made the interception.
The takeaway was 25 percent athletic ability, 75 percent smarts.
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“That just shows the type of awareness he has,” fellow safety Eric Reid said. “Knowing the down and distance, knowing the situation, knowing that he can let his guy catch the ball and it’s not going to hurt us. He helped another (defender) out, and he made a play for us.”
With new faces – including Bethea’s – at nearly every key position in the secondary this year, that unit was supposed to be a 49ers weakness, at least early in the season. Instead, it’s been the strongest, most consistent part of the squad.
The 49ers enter Sunday’s game against Washington with an NFL-best 16 interceptions, three by Bethea, who has taken over as captain of the secondary and could end up being the team MVP in his first year with San Francisco.
“This guy comes in, and he’s very complete,” defensive backs coach Ed Donatell said. “He does a little bit of everything, and he does it well. He’s also proven to be a quick study. We just were fortunate a guy like this was available.”
As Donte Whitner’s replacement at strong safety, Bethea may not be the emotional force or heavy hitter Whitner was. But he has been better in coverage and certainly hasn’t cost the defense penalty yardage, which became a hallmark for the fiery Whitner.
Last year, Whitner was called for five 15-yard penalties. Through 10 games, Bethea has not been penalized.
Bethea has been a starter for nine seasons and played in a similar system in Indianapolis before signing a four-year deal with the 49ers. At the same time, Reid has been given more responsibilities in his second year with the team. That has allowed the 49ers to be more complex in their coverages than they were a year ago and perhaps compensate for other deficiencies on defense.
For example, neither of the 49ers’ Pro Bowl linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, is currently in the lineup. Both are excellent tacklers but are more unique in their ability to cover tight ends, running backs and sometimes even receivers one on one, something the 49ers are doing less without them this season.
San Francisco’s pass rush also flagged without its top contributor, Aldon Smith, who was suspended for the first nine games. The 49ers’ 17 sacks rank 25th in the NFL, yet the pass defense and overall defense rank fourth.
“They do a great job of mixing it up,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said of the 49ers’ safeties. “They play enough man to man to throw you off, but they also do a great job in their zones. … They just do a great job mixing it up and keeping the quarterback off balance.”
Bethea and Reid will be particularly wary of the long ball against Gruden’s team, which has two receivers, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, with the speed to break away from secondaries.
Despite playing with three starting quarterbacks this season, Jackson has been perhaps the top deep threat in the league with nine catches of 40 yards or more.
The next-best player in that category, Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson, has six such catches. All of the 49ers’ pass catchers have combined for just four catches of 40 or more yards.
Every defense enters games intending to keep Jackson in front of them, but he consistently finds ways to sneak through.
“I don’t know how it happens, but sometimes it just does,” Bethea said. “We just have to be on our P’s and Q’s in knowing certain situations, when they like to throw it (deep), certain formations and where he’s aligned in them. … We need to know where No. 11 is, the secondary as a whole.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.