Why 49ers pass defense faltered in playoffs

Why 49ers pass defense faltered in playoffs
February 19, 2013, 9:15 am
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The top priority for the 49ers in the coming months is to figure out -- and take measures to correct -- what happened to the pass defense in the postseason.

The 49ers' pass defense was exceptional in the regular season. The 49ers often played with a lead, and it still was ranked fourth in the NFL, allowing just 200.2 yards passing a game.

And the 49ers did not just pile up stats against a bunch of stiffs. No, the 49ers faced the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

Opposing quarterbacks averaged just 6.1 yards per pass attempt with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a lowly passer rating of 78.0.

But in the three postseason games, it was a completely different story. The 49ers surrendered 306.0 yards passing per game, ranking 11th of the 12 playoff teams. Only the one-and-done Denver Broncos, who gave up 324 yards passing to the Baltimore Ravens, were worse.

The opposition completed 68.4 percent of its attempts for an 8.2 average per attempt. The 49ers gave up eight touchdown passes with just two interceptions for a passer rating of 109.5.

It's easy to single out the secondary. But the true problem was the pass rush, which recorded just four sacks in three postseason games. Only a couple times were receivers running wide open in the secondary. Most of the completions required pin-point passes. And the 49ers' pass rush was rarely there to create a distraction for the quarterback.

The 49ers have an outstanding front four in nickel situations with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at the end positions, and Justin Smith and Ray McDonald rushing from the inside. That core group does not need to change.

But those players need more help.

Throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s, the 49ers stockpiled outstanding defensive linemen and shuttled fresh bodies onto the field virtually every play. The 49ers need to rip a page from their past.

The Smiths, Brooks and McDonald would benefit tremendously from spending more time on the sideline. Last season, those players (when healthy) were on the field for nearly every snap. If their play time could be dialed back to 75 or 80 percent, that group would be unstoppable late in games -- and late in the season.

There's nothing wrong with the secondary. Cornerback Tarell Brown had a very good season, and he should continue to improve. Carlos Rogers was not as good as he was in 2011, but he was still solid. He's not finished.

Despite his forgettable Super Bowl week, Chris Culliver showed through the course of the season that he has the ability to be a future starter. The question becomes, when? (It's not known if the 49ers believe Rogers' scheduled $5.85 million salary is in line with his contributions.)

The 49ers like young cornerback Tramaine Brock, who is likely to receive a tender as a restricted free agent. And dime back Perrish Cox did an acceptable job in his role after a full year off.

While the 49ers can be expected to bring in players this offseason at nearly every position, including the defensive backfield, it's the defensive line where they must bring in players who have the ability to step onto the field as part of a rotation.

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