Why the 49ers Defense Struggled in the Red Zone

The other day, we wrote about the 49ers’ inability to consistently put pressure on the quarterback. This certainly played a role in their red zone woes (26th in the NFL in red zone scoring %). Their coverage execution was equally as responsible.

The red zone is a compressed area. With less field to cover, defenders don’t have to worry about getting beat over the top. This means they can take more chances and jump routes. It means help defenders can focus more on the short and intermediate throws instead of deep balls. It means zone coverage converts to man quicker than in the middle of the field. It means that defenders generally can play tighter to receivers, whether in man or zone. Offenses should have a more difficult time completing passes as a result.

Whether it was their inexperience, poor communication, the impact of injuries, or the way it was coached, the 49ers did not do a good job of making life difficult for opposing offenses in the red zone in 2018. Below, you can see several examples.

On this first play against the Lions, the 49ers were rushing 3 and playing man-free behind it. You can see below that the corners to the left, K’Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon looked to be playing the releases of the two stacked receivers. They were also playing to their inside help, safety Adrian Colbert.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Lions were running two in-breaking routes from that side.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Again, keep in mind that it is difficult for receivers to get on top of defensive backs in the red zone. It gets tougher the closer the offense gets to the goal line. From the 5-yard line, this should barely be a concern for the defense. The only way to really run away from defenders this deep in an opponent’s territory is to run across the field. That means the priority for help defenders has to be on those types of crossing routes, since the back of the end zone can be used as de facto safety help.

A few beats into the play, you can see Witherspoon was clearly playing with the expectation of help inside from Colbert.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Colbert just sat deep though. He was more of a help defender on the deep route, which didn’t really need help. The result was a wide-open receiver against eight men in coverage. That shouldn’t happen.

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On this next play, watch Colbert again. It looked like the 49ers were playing quarters coverage to his side.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The number-2 vertical running right at him was his responsibility. But Colbert dropped too far to the outside, dropped too deep in the end zone, and was too slow to close on the receiver. The result was one of the easier red zone touchdowns you’ll ever see.

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Colbert’s instincts should have left him ready to pounce on the receiver’s break a lot sooner than you would in the middle of the field. Instead, he played it as if he was worried about getting beat over the top for a deep ball, which is not something to worry about when your heels are less than 5 yards from the back of the end zone.

On this next play against the Giants, keep your eyes on Ahkello Witherspoon at the top of the screen. He was the deep outside third defender in cover-3 here.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

After his receiver vacated his zone, he had absolutely no one to cover. At that point, he should have hunted up any receivers threatening any area near him. Instead, he stayed in his deep third until the ball was thrown. This touchdown could have been avoided.

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Again, in the red zone, defenders can and need to play tighter to receivers in zone coverage than they do between the 20’s. The above were just a few examples of defenders not altering their play based on the area of the field. There were several other plays just like this throughout the season for the 49ers. Situational football, folks.

Some of these issues seem to be correctable. Two of the main culprits shown above, Witherspoon and Colbert, were second year players. Perhaps more experience and a third season in the same system will help both defensive backs.

These two players weren’t the only members of San Francisco’s secondary that struggled, however. The 49ers were forced to go deep into their defensive back depth chart at times this season, and this left them exposed vs. more experienced and athletic receivers. As a whole, the 49ers need more talent and speed in their secondary to play the execution-style of defense they want to.

In addition to addressing their pass rush (which was non-existent on each of the touchdowns shown above), the 49ers would be wise to add one of the many quality safeties available in this year’s free agency class. They need someone with the instincts and ability to thrive in this system. Earl Thomas seems like a no-brainer here, although there will likely be strong competition for his services.

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