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Familiar coordinator, unfamiliar personnel: How 49ers are approaching Bucs’ young secondary



© Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers’ secondary is split 40/60 young players to veterans; compared to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ secondary, the group might as well be ancient. The entire secondary for the Buccaneers has exactly one player – safety Darian Stewart (age 31) – over the age of 24. Tampa Bay has spent an enormous amount of draft capital on overhauling that group, using seven draft picks on defensive backs in rounds four and up in the past four years.

Outside of Stewart, undrafted rookie cornerback Jamel Dean is the only player not to be drafted by the Buccaneers in that group. The draft moves are startling when looked at in order (an asterisk denotes a starter, according to the team’s depth chart):

2016: *CB Vernon Hargreaves III (age 24) – Round 1, 11th overall

2017: S Justin Evans (age 24) – Round, 2, 50th overall

2018: CB/NB M.J. Stewart (age 23) – Round 2, 53rd overall; *CB Carlton Davis (age 22) – Round 2, 63rd overall; *S Jordan Whitehead (age 22) – Round 4, 117th overall

2019: CB/NB Sean Murphy-Bunting (age 22) – Round 2, 39th overall; *S Mike Edwards (age 23) – Round 3, 99th overall

That youth will be guided by the steady hand of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who, after being ousted from his post as head coach of the New York Jets, returned as Bruce Arians’ defensive overseer, just as he did in 2013-14 with the Arizona Cardinals. The pair also coached together with the Cleveland Browns from 2001-03 with Arians as the offensive coordinator and Bowles as the secondary and nickel package coach.

Bowles, of course, played for Arians in college at Temple University and both grew up in northern New Jersey cities on either side of Newark – Bowles in Elizabeth just south of Newark and Arians in Paterson, a bit further north – albeit 11 years apart.

The reality of facing a young, Bowles-led defense is a double-edged sword. You know Bowles likes to run his 3-4 base with a heavy use of nickel packages (of which there is plenty of tape) and blitzes, and you also know that secondary is young and will be highlighted if that pressure doesn’t get there in time. At the same time, you don’t know how Bowles will try and mix up things with his new personnel, and there’s not all that much NFL tape on most of that secondary; the only tape of Bowles with that secondary is preseason film, which as Kyle Shanahan will tell you, is worth it’s weight in tissue paper.

“It happens a lot,” Shanahan said of evaluating defenses with a lack of game tape. “That’s why we like to get into the season because people hate watching preseason tape because a lot of times you are watching guys who are not on the team and a lot of people don’t show a lot in the preseason so it does get frustrating throughout the week. You can’t wait until you get to about Week 4 or Week 5 so you don’t have to watch preseason games anymore.”

Shanahan called Bowles a “hell of a defensive coordinator” – Jimmy Garoppolo preferred the word “tremendous” – and credited his defenses as being unpredictable despite their predictable base formations. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh described Bowles’ defenses as founded more on creating pressure than the 49ers.

As Garoppolo and Shanahan both acknowledged – Garoppolo only faced the Bowles-led Jets once in a game with the Patriots, when he had one completion in a 41-3 blowout in 2016, but saw two-plus years of Bowles behind Tom Brady – there’s a serious level of difficulty in preparing for a well-known, but crafty defensive coordinator with a completely new defense.

“Todd [Bowles] has been in this league for a long time,” Shanahan said. “He’s a hell of a defensive coordinator. We definitely prepare for him, but Todd’s a tough guy to prepare for too. He’s done about everything in his career, so we’ll see what he wants to do with Tampa Bay. We do have to be prepared for everything, but that’s something that’s going to take a few games for people realize what he wants to do in Tampa.”

It’s an odd thing to approach in Week 1. The Buccaneers’ defensive front and linebacking groups are full of veterans. Even the youngest of that defensive line group, Vita Via, was featured so heavily in college and last season that there is an abundance of tape on him. It’s a well-seasoned unit in: Ndamukong Suh (age 32, 10th year), Vita Vea (age 24, 1st round, 12th overall – 2018), Beau Allen (age 27, 6th year), William Gholston (age 28, 7th year), and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (age 26, 5th year).

Here’s what their linebacking groups look like (keep in mind many of these outside backers are effectively edge rushers lined up at backer, like Dee Ford with the Kansas City Chiefs).

Outside linebacker: Carl Nassib (age 26, 4th year), Anthony Nelson (age 22, 4th round, 107th overall – 2019),

Inside linebacker: Devin White (age 21, 1st round, 5th overall – 2019), Kevin Minter (age 28, 7th year), Jack Cichy (age 23, 6th round, 202nd overall – 2018)

Inside linebacker: Lavonte David (age 29, 8th year), Deone Buchanan (age 28, 6th year)

Outside linebacker: Shaquil Barret (age 26, 6th year), Demone Harris (age 23, 2nd year, undrafted – 2018)

The average age of the Buccaneers defensive groups highlights the disparity:

  • Defensive line: 27.86 years old (average of 5 years of NFL experience)
  • Linebackers: 25.52 years old (average of 3.11 years of NFL experience
  • Secondary: 24.1 years old (average of 1.89 years of NFL experience); 23.22 years old (average of 1 year of NFL experience) excluding the 31-year-old Stewart

Some of the pitfalls of having a young secondary are clear: missed coverages, adjusting to NFL game speed and schemes, and being read and exploited by veteran quarterbacks. But as Richard Sherman, a three-time first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler entering his ninth season said Thursday, much of the learning curve is embracing mistakes and preparing for the next snap.

“I think sometimes you’re young, you can let plays compound on you,” Sherman said. “You can let one bad play kind of ruin your day. I think once you get older and you play enough plays in this league, you understand that one play is one play and you move past it and allow yourself to grow and get better and still be competitive in that game.”

Mike Person said the best approach to preparing for the Buccaneers is similar to what head coach Bruce Arians said his team would do in preparing for the 49ers’ defense: going off defensive structure.

The youth of Tampa Bay should play for the 49ers, but as the 31-year-old right guard knows, it’s a dangerous game to expect poor play from youth. Person faced those Bowles-led defenses twice when he started for the then-Saint Louis Rams against the Cardinals in 2014 (in a 31-14 loss in Week 9 and 12-6 loss in Week 14).

“There’s a reason why they’re in the NFL, so if you get overconfident in this league, you’re going to get humbled really quick,” Person told KNBR.

Marquise Goodwin played just two games against the Bowles-led Jets with the Buffalo Bills in 2016 and pointed to the success he had against the team (had two receptions for 112 yards and one touchdown in a Week 2 game and one reception for eight yards in Week 16; his only other game against the Jets was his first NFL start in 2013 a a rookie, when he caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown).

While Goodwin told KNBR his focus is firstly on himself and ensuring he’s locked in to the 49ers’ offense, he expressed anticipation at facing Bowles and his experience-thin secondary.

“It’s kind of relative because he’s got different players in the same scheme, so they might not run it as well as the Jets may have in the past,” Goodwin said. “I’ve been very successful in facing the Jets in my career, so I look forward to playing these guys in Tampa… Just try to expose the youth, maybe some things that they miss, just based off not having that experience.”