The 49ers are looking like the 2019-selves again with one glaring exception: the cornerback position.
How much of that is their fault is up for debate. San Francisco went into 2021 with Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley as their starters, not a bad pairing by any stretch. They did, however, take a risk with Verrett, who has an extensive injury history. It’s a risk that backfired immediately, with Verrett sustaining a season-ending injury in Week 1.
Now with Moseley out until the postseason, the 49ers are trotting out past-his-prime Josh Norman and raw rookie Ambrey Thomas as their starting cornerbacks.
Overall, San Francisco’s pass defense has been in the top 10, but much of that is due to their stellar pass rush. The deeper the 49ers get into the playoffs, the more they will be exposed on the outside, especially if they face the likes of Tom Brady and/or Aaron Rodgers.
Donte Whitner was a Pro Bowl defensive back for the 49ers, and told Papa & Lund on Monday that while Thomas had a rough time on Sunday, San Francisco’s safeties aren’t doing a very good job helping he, or Norman out.
“With Ambrey Thomas I thought he played a little bit better, but with all offenses they want to see where the deficiency is, where the bullseye is, so they’re going to take shots over there,” Whitner said on KNBR.
“The safeties aren’t really helping. It’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it. So if you are disguising that coverage and Ambry Thomas is lining up to press, the safeties with width, and depth perception of the quarterback, they can get him off of that first read. If you stay near the numbers, you keep your shoulders square and you take two or three backpedal steps before you turn your hips and go to the middle of the field, the quarterback has to go to read two and three, then you go to the middle of the field. The backside safety that’s coming down in the box, you can do your job from width and depth as well. Put that corner Josh Norman to look like press and they won’t be able to pick on them.
“When they are picking on them, they’re obviously lining up man-to-man across the board, safety in the middle of the field, it’s a glaring bullseye over there, and they are just taking shots.”
One of those shots was a deep throw to Kyle Pitts in the second quarter. Thomas was in position to make an interception, but instead of high-pointing the ball, he let it fall to him. The decision cost him a pick, and almost gave Pitts a catch.
“The play that they tried to go to Kyle Pitts was the exact same play and the exact same defense that the 49ers played vs. Cincinnati,” Whitner said. “It’s a sluggo, it’s a read to his side, if they show single-high they are going to throw the ball up.
“He played it well this time. He allowed the underneath coverage to take the slant part of it, he took the fade part of it, but he got his head around just a little too late, and he waited for the ball to come down in his chest, and almost gave up a catch.”
“I think he’ll get better over time,” Whitner concluded, “but there’s glaring holes there, and they are going to have to do it with width and depth perception when they want to sneak one in, but they are going to have to play a lot of cover 2 and rely heavily on the front seven to stop the run with a light box until Emmanuel Moseley returns.”
Listen to the full interview below. You can listen to every KNBR interview on our podcast page at knbr.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Catch Papa & Lund weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on KNBR 104.5 / 680 and streaming live on KNBR.com.