The 49ers’ pass defense was horrible last season.
That is not any kind of revelation. The numbers speak for themselves.
The 49ers’ opponent passer rating was next-to-last in the league at 105.5 – the equivalent of facing the NFL’s fifth-rated passer Philip Rivers every week. The 49ers registered two interceptions – the worst single-season mark in NFL history -- while giving up 35 touchdown passes.
Based on the numbers, the 49ers’ pass rush was bad but not atrocious. The 49ers ranked tied for 22nd in the league with 37 sacks – seven more sacks than Super Bowl-champion New England.
But 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh measures the pass rush on the impact it has on the opposition, and that’s where the 49ers failed miserably to strike any fear into opposing offenses.
Saleh relayed statistical information that the 49ers’ defense faced in the neighborhood of 30 snaps last season in which offenses got the ball out quickly with quick-developing shallow routes – the kind of plays that gives the pass rush no chance to affect the quarterback. The vast majority of pass plays the 49ers faced were long-developing, down-the-field routes because offenses had no fear of the 49ers' pass rush.
Saleh referenced Jacksonville, the Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas as teams that faced three times more of those quick-hitting plays. That is more along the lines of what the 49ers want to face this season.
“That tells us that they’re afraid of their pass rush,” Saleh said. “So they’re not designing routes that are where quarterbacks can take one, two and three hitches. The ball’s got to come out.
“So when an offense changes the way they approach us and the way they attack us, then I know that we’re getting pressure on the quarterback and we’re changing their entire philosophy on how they want to attack us.”
The 49ers’ top outside pass-rushers last season were Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair. The club overhauled their nickel pass rush this offseason with the acquisition of Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. The club then selected the player they had evaluated as the best edge rusher in the draft, Nick Bosa, with the No. 2 overall pick. Bosa is expected to sit out the remainder of the offseason program to allow a grade-one strain of his right hamstring to heal before the start of training camp in late-July.
As a result of the additions of Ford and Bosa, the 49ers cut Marsh. Now, Blair is the team's No. 3 edge rusher.
The 49ers invested their resources in the pass rush, a clear signal that they are satisfied with the defensive backfield. Veteran cornerback Jason Verrett, who has appeared in only 25 games in five NFL seasons due to a variety of injuries, was the only major addition.
Verrett figures to be in competition with a rejuvenated Ahkello Witherspoon at right cornerback, while veteran Richard Sherman is set at left cornerback.
The club also re-signed versatile Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal after evaluating him as the team’s best defensive back during the nine games he played last season. But for the fourth time in five years, Ward's season ended with a broken bone. For the second season in a row, he was placed on injured reserve with a fractured left forearm -- the same arm but at a different spot as his season-ending fracture in 2017. Ward’s offseason program came to an end two weeks ago when he sustained a fractured collarbone. He is expected to be ready for football activity in eight to 12 weeks.
A healthy Ward is the front-runner to start at free safety, with Adrian Colbert and Tarvarius Moore competing for playing time, as well. Jaquiski Tartt is penciled in as the starter at strong safety with second-year player Marcell Harris behind him.
“It’s a really talented group,” Saleh said. “There’s a lot of natural competition at those spots. It’s unfortunate what happened to Jimmie, but we have a lot of confidence in that group because it really is a talented group. It’s just got to stay healthy.”