As the 49ers limp into Week 6, they are facing a Washington Redskins team that is coming off a bye week, and that is frustrated as hell. They went to Kansas City last Monday night and were defeated by the Chiefs, and they will be looking to take their unhappiness out on an opponent that is still winless in 5 games. Since so much has been made of the Robert Saleh-coordinated 49er defense since training camp, focusing on how our defense will fare against the Redskin offense makes perfect sense.
(Note: I’m going to use the term “Redskins” here only because the Washington organization has not seen fit to change the team name, political incorrectness notwithstanding. Don’t like it? Place a call to Daniel Snyder, the team owner. Perhaps someday he’ll actually listen.)
Faithful NBN readers know that I’m a fan of Solomon Thomas, and despite his seemingly misfit characteristics in the trenches — he is stymied whenever he’s kicked inside, and he doesn’t have the agility to be an edge rusher — he has steadily improved as a playmaker. He is starting to get sacks, and he’s also very good at stopping off-tackle runs and swing pass receivers. Deforest Buckner is also a dreaded force whenever the ball is snapped performing at an elite level this season. The doubts that existed in the minds of many about Aaron Lynch are dissipating as he gets into better physical shape and makes his way into the backfield much more than he did in previous years. Arik Armstead is still underwhelming, but even he has gotten some pressure and fractional sacks.
The thing is, though, the 49ers’ defensive line is still a young group, by and large. There’s a lot of talent, but not much veteran presence, and the unit has only been playing together since July. The Redskins’ offensive line wasn’t overly impressive in its games against the Eagles and the Chiefs, but in pass situations, it has been pretty respectable. Trent Williams, Morgan Moses, Brandon Scherff and Spencer Long are especially tough opponents in the trenches, and the Niners will have to employ some skillful moves to get pressure on Kirk Cousins.
We saw the release of fan-favorite and former All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman after he was unsatisfied with his playing time diminishing. General Manager John Lynch stated in the press conference Friday (10/13/2017) that NaVorro made it very evident through his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, that he wanted to seek a trade. Lynch also said they came very close to trading the MON5T3R, but in the end he decided he’d rather be released.
There’s a huge amount of variation in this corps. On the one hand, you have Elvis Dumervil, he of the 102 sacks, who is the closest thing the team has to a Fred Dean-style blitzer. The fact that he’s seen as a threat limits any double – teaming that an opponent can do. Ray-Ray Armstrong is an enormously capable player, and someone that we can count on to break up and intercept passes in clutch situations.
But looking past those two gentlemen, you also see Eli Harold, who has one of the worst linebacker PFF ratings in the league thus far; Brock Coyle, who is most likely headed for a career in special teams; and the agonizingly slow recovery of Reuben Foster from a high ankle sprain. And as we have seen, the zone defense that Saleh operates has allowed short- to mid-length gains in every one of the 49ers defeats this season, from Kirk Cousins’ handoffs and his throws. Foster’s possible return might help to address that particular problem of the 49ers’ defense.
“Fat Rob” Kelley and Chris Thompson (who has 186 receiving yards and 142 rushing yards) are going to test the linebacking squad when they can get through holes created by the Washington offensive line, and Thompson has been catching a lot of passes out of the backfield as well. This week, we may also find out first-hand how mobile a quarterback Kirk Cousins is. That’s not to say that this game is in any way a tryout for the successor to Bryan Hoyer — my football instincts are “leaning No” to breaking the bank and signing Cousins this coming offseason — but even if Foster is on the field, it will be be a strenuous day for that part of the Niners defense. (Note to Trent Williams and T.J. Clemmings: if Foster does return, you are the ones standing between him and his candy. Say your prayers.)
Oh yeah, I forgot — Cousins can throw too. Which brings us to…
Let’s face it: there is a very good reason why the 49ers have given up more yards than all but a few teams this season. Our cornerbacks have been performing less than admirably. Rashard Robinson is about as reliable as a drunken butterfly, Dontae Johnson arguably hasn’t improved as a cornerback in three years, and Akhello Witherspoon played his first game of the season last week, promptly got a concussion, and exited the field. The 49ers’ defense allowed the Colts’ Jacoby Brissett to pass for 314 yards last week, which is a sham of what we ought to be.
For what it’s worth, we did waive safety Lorenzo Jerome and sign versatile defensive back Leon Hall this past week. Hall is a seasoned veteran, and he’s definitely talented, but he is on the wrong side of 30 and is more of an insurance policy than anything else.
On the ‘Skins side, Cousins is 39 of 54 for 585 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games, so we shouldn’t count on him making a dumb mistake. Washington’s receivers no longer include DeSean Jackson or (wicked laugh) Pierre Garcon, but Terrelle Pryor and tight end Jordan Reed have been strong targets for Cousins this season. And, if we really want to depress ourselves, former 49er Vernon Davis is another favorite receiver for the Redskin attack. (For the ten millionth time: Damn you, Trent Baalke.)
Jimmie Ward still plays capably, and has actually been seen breaking up passes a fair amount this year, though has had some lapses in coverage that might get Kirk Cousins to test him deep early.
Jaquiski Tartt is a mean, quick, competitive player, and I think he is the future of the Niners secondary. He will nevertheless have a big task on his hands, as he will have to contain the varied threats of Vernon Davis, Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson, as well as possibly being asked to cover the likes of Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder. If Tartt has a good game on Sunday, and you hadn’t already decided that he had arrived, then you should. The upside pretty much ends there.
Eric Reid is still injured (though he did return to practice this week and could appear, but hopefully not at the expense of Ward or Tartt), and Adrian Colbert doesn’t have sufficient strength to be a consistent tackler yet. The newest arrival to the team, free safety Dexter McCoil, spent a couple of years with the Chargers and was in the CFL before that, and he has barely had time to find his locker and parking place in Santa Clara, let alone learn Saleh’s defensive system.
Washington’s passing game, as was pointed out above, is an intimidating one. Davis, Pryor, Ryan Grant…they can all catch and run, and they have been long range targets from time to time as well. If this game isn’t a workout for the safeties, it’s hard to see what game might be.
While the Redskins are not a juggernaut, they come into Sunday’s contest with a lot more strength in their offense than we have in our defense — at least, where such things can be measured. If the Niners want to keep it close, they have to get Kirk Cousins on the ground early and often, never mind the loose talk about him being Shanahan’s sweetheart or the savior of the 2018 team.
Of course, it would also help if we scored a few points of our own, preferably in increments of 6.
Just a thought, Kyle.