The San Francisco 49ers have the unquestioned best defense in the NFL. They are first in points against and expected points contributed, first in DVOA, tied for first in yards allowed per carry, second in turnover percentage and first downs allowed, tied for second in turnovers, and lastly tied for third in yards allowed per play. Going up against a defense of that caliber can leave an opposing offensive coordinator up at night. Demeco Ryans defense is a brick wall against the run ranking as they rank at or near the top in just about every metric. Against the pass they are still one of the better units in the league, but there are some small cracks in the armor that the Seattle Seahawks might be able to attack on Saturday. Down below we are going to highlight the biggest strength in the San Fran secondary and the most exploitable part of it.
The 49ers secondary features Charvarius Ward, who’s done a great job holding D.K. Metcalf in check this season.
Charvarius Ward vs. DK Metcalf round 3 coming up on Saturday— Coach Yac (@Coach_Yac) January 9, 2023
Here’s how Charvarius has done against DK in the 2 matchups this season:
38 yards total allowed
2 pass breakups
0 touchdowns allowed pic.twitter.com/UHfhs37ht3
There are some corners who play a bit timid against Metcalf because of his physical traits, but the former Kansas City Chief has done the complete opposite against him. He has gotten in his face off of the line, played tight and physical coverage throughout the route and managed to routinely get under the skin of Metcalf. Corners have consistently tried to bait Metcalf into penalties and to take him out of the game by getting in his head throughout the course of his career. As a result, Metcalf’s mannerisms toward Ward are something we are going to have to keep an eye on from the start on Saturday. Two ways that Seattle can try and counter the physical nature that Ward brings as a corner is to either get Metcalf in consistent at the snap motion or instead of playing him as the “X” receiver line him up in the slot off of the line of scrimmage.
Seattle is about league average in motion at the time of the snap this season, a number which will surely have to go up if they want to free up Metcalf against the fifth-year pro. Getting Metcalf in the slot and off of the line of scrimmage helps prevent Ward from getting some of those instant jams off on Metcalf. Additionally, it might also force him into playing a little more off coverage seeing as he has to defend more of the field from the slot.
Talanoa Hufanga has been viewed as one of the better safeties in the league this season because of what he does against the run as well as his ability to make Troy Polamalu-like plays. However, when it comes to the passing game Hufanga is a player Shane Waldron needs to focus on exploiting. He is beatable simply because of his lack of eye discipline. The 49ers seem to have a lot of mix-ups on the back end, and he is far more often than not at the center of it.
On this play Hufanga is the only player that seems confused. All three linebackers are in hook zones defending any type of underneath route. On the back end I believe they are in quarters coverage, although there is a chance it is Cover 3 with Hufanga tasked with taking the defense’s deep left half of the field. There are some who will point to Fred Warner saying he should have taken Noah Fant a bit more up the field but in my opinion that was Hufanga’s responsibility. But even if it the mix-up was on Warner and Hufanga was supposed to take Lockett, the safety was in no man’s land as he was just staring at Geno Smith. As a result, any pass to Lockett also likely would’ve resulted in a completion.
Also, something to keep in mind in mix-ups like this, Fred Warner is the green dot defender for the 49ers, meaning he is the one getting the play call and communicating that to the defense. So, it is difficult to believe that the green dot defender did not know his assignment on the play, meaning the former USC Trojan was likely the one at fault.
Looks like cover 3? Hufanga probably shouldn't jump the underneath route. Demeco was talking to him on the sideline pic.twitter.com/83UfSB8m8c— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 4, 2022
On this one, there is zero question as to who is at fault. Hufanga inexplicably jumps the dig route, completely abandoning his responsibilities as the middle deep third safety. Because of this play I hope we see Shane Waldron call either a dagger or a post dig concept with the idea of putting Hufanga in potential conflict to see if he will lose eye discipline and step up.
Hufanga loses eye discipline on this one but instead of jumping a route, he crashes down too hard on the play action, rather than playing his pre-snap assignment which was Darren Waller in man coverage. By the time the second-year pro recognizes that it is a pass rather than a run, Waller is nearly even with him and running at full speed making it impossible for him to make any type of play on the ball. Seattle does not have a Darren Waller type tight end on the roster. But Noah Fant is still a very athletic tight end and someone you can trust to create the early and necessary separation in order for this play type to work. If the Seahawks are able to get any type of rhythm going on the ground, we could see Waldron call a play-action pass out of a similar formation with the hopes of isolating Hufanga.
If the Seahawks are to have success in the air against the 49ers it is likely going to come at the cost of Talanoa Hufanga. He is the type of player who will lose eye discipline over the course of a game which can result in a massive chunk play or two, and as we know in order for a big underdog to win, they need to create game altering chunk plays.