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Taking stock of 49ers’ defense: Despite looming Saleh exit, expiring secondary, the core is set

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Robert Saleh is almost assuredly gone. He’ll get the head coaching post he’s long deserved this offseason. So where does that leave San Francisco’s defense?

Looking back, the last two weeks both revealed the value of Saleh’s long tenure in Santa Clara (and Arizona), and why what he’s built won’t suddenly collapse once he departs.

As much as Week 16 was an embarrassment for the Arizona Cardinals, it was equal parts a masterclass by Saleh’s defense. From the outset, clinical tackling and varied coverages and blitzes defined the course of the game.

It was followed by another dominant Week 17 defensive showing against the Seattle Seahawks, when the 49ers held them to three first-half points, and were only picked apart late, with a C.J. Beathard fumble marking turning point. The first eight drives against Seattle netted two field goals and five punts.

While Kliff Kingsbury’s usage of Deandre Hopkins is suspect at best, Hopkins was shut down by Jason Verrett. When you examined the defense, even with the glaring concerns with a safety tandem of Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris (both made egregious mistakes, including one by Harris which should have been a touchdown), you saw the a balance of the simplicity, scheme-leaning approach that has defined this defense, but you also saw Saleh’s willingness to adapt.

Against Seattle, Verrett, and Ahkello Witherspoon, who reclaimed that All-Pro form he teased at the start of the 2019 season, were nothing short of lockdown for most of the game. D.K. Metcalf was limited to three catches for 21 yards, his season low.

Fred Warner has been used as something of a center fielder in zone match schemes. Against Arizona, that showed up when he broke up the vertical attempt for Dan Arnold. He holds the middle hook/curl zone then follows whoever is with him, and nine times out of ten, that’s going to result in an incompletion. Getting that from a linebacker who is just as adept at coming downhill is basically cheating.

And against Seattle, he was everywhere: 10 tackles, one for a loss, one sack and two quarterback hits.

Against Arizona, the defense was vulnerable only to scrambles from Kyler Murray after pressuring and failing to contain, deep stems when Marcell Harris was in coverage, and dink-and-dunk checkdown passes which they encourage teams to take.

Speaking of downhill… dear lord can those secondary guys attack the ball. Moore, Harris, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams all made head-turning tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. And that was with Dre Greenlaw looking every bit and more like the early-season version of Kwon Alexander we saw last year.

Speed, speed, speed. Everything short was getting chopped down in an instant. Yards after catch required superhuman broken tackles from a Cardinals team which was only inclined to provide energy in the range of tepid to room temperature. And it showed up against Seattle, too.

Greenlaw, as much as he was a revelation last year, unquestionably took a leap. He was relied upon to track running backs, and is now operating on a mental level that allows him to trigger towards the backfield as soon as he sees indicators. Here’s a couple examples below, from the Cardinals game:

And that goes for Azeez Al-Shaair, too. When Greenlaw blitzed and pushed Murray out of the pocket, Al-Shaair was responsible for tracking the running back. He quickly recognized he was either out of the play as a blocker, late screen or bail out option, and triggered downhill, forcing Murray to throw the ball away for what may have been intentional grounding if he’d not escaped the tackle box.

With Greenlaw out against Seattle, Al-Shaair put together a stunningly efficient performance, and demonstrated the speed and ruthlessness that made him a top-five tackler in the nation his junior year in college. He had nine tackles, one for a loss and a pass breakup.

The most significant performance, though, was Witherspoon. Benched for three-straight games earlier this year as a liability on special teams behind a practice squad player in Ken Webster, it seemed obvious he would not be returning. Odds are, he still looks somewhere else. But now there’s a path for him.

He’s been credited as having a mentality shift, and those flashes we saw from him early in his career and at the start of last season manifested again on Saturday. Is it a flash in the pan? Could be. But the way Kyle Shanahan raved about him after Saturday’s win seemed to indicate he’d undergone a maturation this season.

Even if the 49ers don’t retain Witherspoon, they’ll certainly retain Moseley. If Witherspoon walks, they won’t also let Verrett leave, too. The main secondary questions are with Jaquiski Tartt and K’Waun Williams. If Jimmy Garoppolo stays, it’s probably that only one of them has a path to returning, and both could easily walk.

But Jimmie Ward is still a staple at safety, and Moore at least showed flashes there late in the year.

Multiple teams, like the Rams with Jordan Fuller and Washington with Kamren Curl, have hit on late-round safeties. And the Chiefs found L’Jarius Sneed, by far the best rookie corner this season in the fifth round. Those positions can be addressed cheaply in the draft.

When you go through this defense, the only concern outside of the secondary is edge depth:

Dee Ford seems like he may not play another down in the NFL, let alone for the 49ers, and is probably going to be cut in the offseason. Ronald Blair III was supposed to head into this offseason healthy and after setting himself up for a big contract. If he doesn’t follow Robert Saleh, who is infatuated with him, to wherever Saleh goes, he’s a cheap depth option.

Kerry Hyder has almost certainly priced himself out of the 49ers’ range and Ziggy Ansah was only signed after injuries warranted it. He was rejected on his first two physicals. Dion Jordan, though, could be another rotational depth piece, as could Jordan Willis. If the cap doesn’t drop to the doomsday number, that could be one position where the 49ers look externally.

Below are just a few edge names on the market this offseason, with various expected prices:

 

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