49ers

NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

spoonshermusatsi.jpg
USATSI

NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

The NFC West doesn't lack big names on defense.

The 49ers have their own collection of talent after adding pass rushers Dee Ford and Joey Bosa during the offseason, supplementing a group that already featured breakout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cagey veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. The Legion of Boom is no more in Seattle, but Bobby Wagner still headlines the Seahawks defense. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson rescinded his trade request and is staying in the desert -- although he will miss the first six games of the season due to a PED suspension.  Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams might have the NFL's best player on their roster in defensive lineman, Aaron Donald.

Those stars will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them? Here are four NFC West defenders -- one from each team -- who could surprise the rest of the division this season. 

John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams S

Johnson had a very productive second NFL season last year, accounting for 82 tackles, 11 passes defended, four interceptions and a forced fumble. His name wasn't the one dominating headlines this offseason, however, after the Rams signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to play alongside him. 

The two should form one of the league's best safety duos next season, in large part because of Johnson's ability. Pro Football Focus gave Johnson an 86.1 coverage grade during the regular season, which was the fifth-best mark among safeties who faced at least 20 targets. The Rams will have eyes on their secondary because of Weddle, but those eyes could quickly shift their attention to Johnson. 

Ezekiel Ansah, Seattle Seahawks DE

Ansah is by no means an unknown, but he'll be tasked with filling a big hole for Seattle next season. The Seahawks traded edge rusher Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs for a haul of picks before this year's draft and signed Ansah a couple weeks later. 

Clark led the Seahawks with 13 sacks in 2018, and Ansah is a good low-risk bet to replicate some of that production. Although injuries have limited Ansah to just 34 games over the last three seasons, he still has 18 sacks during that period. If he can stay healthy next season, Seattle's bet could pay off in a big way. 

Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals CB

Murphy stands to gain from Peterson's aforementioned suspension. After being pegged as a late first-rounder, the Cardinals selected Murphy with their first pick of the second round on the 2019 NFL Draft's second day. The Scottsdale native comes in with plenty of pedigree, being named First Team All-Pac-12 as well as first- or second-team All-America by various outlets in his final season at Washington. 

Although he is listed at 190 pounds and likely will need to bulk up before his first NFL season, Murphy should get an opportunity right away. If he can hit the ground running in his first six NFL games, the Cardinals' secondary looks a lot stronger once Peterson returns. 

[RELATED: Gould still unsure he'll report to 49ers if he's not traded]

Ahkello Witherspoon, 49ers CB

Witherspoon will face stiff competition from veteran Jason Verrett, but that could be a good thing for the 24-year-old. If he's able to beat out Verrett for the starting spot opposite Sherman, he arguably will have won the toughest position battle at this point in his career.

Although his second NFL season was up and down, Witherspoon is coming off of a strong offseason. NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco noted last month that Witherspoon was one of the defense's best players, and that his coverage really stood out. With opposing quarterbacks likely to continue avoiding Sherman at all costs, Witherspoon stands to see plenty of targets come his way next season. They might need to give that approach a second thought if Witherspoon continues along his offseason trajectory. 

Jimmy Garoppolo had good reason for missing Emmanuel Sanders' TD pass

Jimmy Garoppolo had good reason for missing Emmanuel Sanders' TD pass

The 49ers threw five touchdown passes in their thrilling 48-46 road win over the Saints on Sunday. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tossed four of them. The player who was on the receiving end of his second was the gunslinger on the other passing score.

Three offensive plays after wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders caught a 75-yard touchdown -- the longest TD pass of Garoppolo's career -- San Francisco utilized some trickery against New Orleans, as Sanders took a reverse before tossing a 35-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Raheem Mostert. Sanders actually made a great adjustment to avoid the oncoming rush, and this throw was right on the money.

It turns out, though, that Jimmy G didn't see it in the moment, and he had a funny explanation as to why.

"I didn't actually get to see it," Garoppolo admitted with a smile following the victory. "I was 'blocking'".

Don't sell yourself short, Jimmy. Another look at the tape reveals that Garoppolo indeed was "blocking" on the right side of the 49ers' offensive line during the developing play, and even threw a shoulder -- the non-throwing one, of course -- into an oncoming rusher.

[RELATED: 'You're balling': Garcia praises Jimmy G for recent play]

The play probably would have been successful without Garoppolo's blocking, but his additional effort made it that much more impressive. He might not have seen Sanders' great throw in real-time, but hey, that's what replays are for.

49ers report card: Grades on offense, defense in 48-46 win over Saints

49ers report card: Grades on offense, defense in 48-46 win over Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- While winning 11 of their 13 games this season, the 49ers have done it in a lot of different ways.

On Sunday, they won a Big 12-style shootout against the New Orleans Saints. The 49ers’ offense picked up the slack for a rare poor performance from the defense in a 48-46 victory at the Superdome.

The 49ers earned an important win as they continue to battle the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West title and, possibly, home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But ...

“If you start feeling good about yourself, it’s going to be over fast and if you get down, you knock yourself out and don’t give yourself a chance,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s going to come down to the last week with the teams in the NFC.”

Here are the 49ers’ grades from their Week 14 victory:

Rushing offense

The 49ers’ running game got it going on Sunday, averaging 6.8 yards an attempt on 24 run plays. Raheem Mostert had another strong performance, rushing for 69 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Matt Breida returned to action and gained 54 yards on six rushing attempts. Tevin Coleman started but managed just 6 yards on three attempts.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel got involved with two carries for 33 yards, including a 31-yard run. Jimmy Garoppolo picked up a big first down in the fourth quarter with a 2-yard scramble.

The offensive line did a fine job of opening the holes for the running game.
Grade: A

Passing offense

Jimmy Garoppolo had his fourth consecutive game with a passer rating of 110 or better. He completed 26 of 35 passes for 349 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating was 131.7.

Emmanuel Sanders caught seven passes for 157 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown on a long heave down the field from Garoppolo. Sanders also was on the other side of a scoring pass, when he threw a 35-yard touchdown strike to Mostert.

Tight end George Kittle provided the play of the game when he caught a short pass and turned it into a 39-yard gain on a fourth-and-2 play in the final minute. An additional 15 yards on a facemask penalty put the 49ers in position for the game-winning field goal.

Receiver Kendrick Bourne caught three passes, and two of them were 6-yard touchdown receptions.
Grade: A

Rushing Defense

The 49ers' run defense did a good job against Alvin Kamara, holding him to just 25 yards on 13 rushing attempts. But Latavius Murray found some wide lanes to run through. Murray had 69 yards on seven rushing attempts.

The 49ers had too many missed tackles. It was not a sharp performance. But the run defense came up with a big play in the second half when D.J. Jones stripped Kamara of the ball, leading to DeForest Buckner’s recovery at the New Orleans 20.

Nick Bosa threw Saints all-purpose offensive threat Taysom Hill for a 6-yard loss on a designed run play on a third-and-1 in the second quarter to force the Saints’ first punt of the game.
Grade: B-minus

Passing Defense

Drew Brees basically had his way with the 49ers’ defense. He completed 29 of 40 passes for 349 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Brees led the Saints down the field for the go-ahead touchdown with :53 remaining. The only issue was that he left the 49ers too much time to respond with the winning points.

The 49ers entered the game with the NFL’s best pass defense. They did not look the part on Sunday, as corners Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley each had their difficulties. Safety Marcell Harris, making his first start of the season, struggled in place of injured Jaquiski Tartt.

Brees got rid of the ball quickly, and the 49ers were unable to register a sack.
Grade: D-minus

Special Teams

There were a lot of blemishes on the 49ers’ special-teams ledger that do not look nearly as bad after Robbie Gould kicked a 30-yard field goal with no time remaining to supply the 49ers with the winning points.

Also, one of the best plays of the season came when Tarvarius Moore locked up Saints gunner Tre’Quan Smith on a fake punt attempt. There cannot be pass interference when a team lines up in punt formation, and Moore knew that rule in order to break up the pass.

The 49ers’ coverage units did not play well. Saints return man Deonte Harris averaged 18.5 yards on two punt returns, and he had a 31.0 average on five kickoff returns.

Punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s net average on his three punts was just 32.3 yards. He had just three touchbacks on his eight kickoffs. His only touchback came when the ball was moved to the 50-yard line following a New Orleans penalty. Saints kicker Wil Lutz had eight touchbacks on his nine kickoffs.
Grade: B-minus

Overall

In a game that reminded veteran 49ers left tackle Joe Staley of the back-and-forth 49ers-Saints playoff game in January 2012, the 49ers got the final word.

[RELATED: 'You're balling': Garcia praises Jimmy G for recent play]

It was not a masterpiece in a lot of ways, as the defense struggled and the 49ers were called for 10 penalties, totaling 67 yards. But, man, was it entertaining.

This was a huge win for the 49ers to come to New Orleans and beat the Saints in an emotional, offensive battle. The 49ers still control their own destiny in the race for the NFC West and homefield advantage in the playoffs.
Grade: A