The San Francisco 49ers Need Deeper Rotations on Defense

By Brandon Burnett
San Francisco 49ers defense
Robert Hanashiro – USA Today Sports

While a triceps injury to All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith did play its part, the defense for the San Francisco 49ers didn’t perform up to its standards during the team’s latest playoff run. The pass rush seemed non-existent at times, and the defensive backs often struggled to keep track of the receivers they were assigned to cover.

One potential reason the Niners’ D seemed a little sluggish down the stretch and into the playoffs could be that the starters, while many of them are Pro Bowl-caliber guys, spend too much time on the field and not enough getting breathers on the sideline.

According to Pro Football Focus (playoffs included), 10 of the 49ers defensive starters played over 1,000 snaps in 2012, and five of those 10 played over 1,200 snaps. That is of course over a 19-game span, but is a ridiculous amount of snaps nonetheless. In 2011, only Carlos Rogers hit 1,200 snaps. The three years combined prior to that only nine players saw 1,000 snaps or more.

The Niners had just two reserve players (DT Ricky Jean Francois and CB Perrish Cox) that saw 100 defensive snaps or more in 2012. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but that’s gotta be the lowest total in the entire NFL. What really baffles me is that San Fran took part in numerous blowouts during the regular season and yet no backup outside of Jean Francois and Cox saw more than 56 snaps on defense.

For as many different players as the Niners utilize on offense, there were simply no rotations to be found on the defensive side of the ball.

Injuries are partly to blame. Outside linebacker and former starter Parys Haralson hit the injured reserve before the season even began, leaving the 49ers thin at the position behind Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.

Speaking of Smith (Aldon), he saw twice as many snaps in 2012 than he did as a rookie the year before. After racking up a league-high 19.5 sacks through 13 games, he would fail to record a single sack over the next six. Now, it was easy to see that Justin’s Smith’s triceps tear affected Aldon’s ability to rush the passer so freely, but nobody mentioned the guy might just be exhausted from a heavier workload than he’s ever experienced.

Just a thought, though.

Either way, this defense has now endured back-to-back seasons that featured lengthy and tiresome playoff runs. While the reserve personnel wasn’t as quality as desired, the 49ers’ coaching staff did little to keep their stars fresh throughout the season. With 14 selections in this year’s NFL draft, I would imagine there will be an increased focus on improving the depth across the defense to make sure they have the ability to do just that in 2013.

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