The San Francisco 49ers landed a new addition to their vaunted defensive line Tuesday: Defensive End Chase Young.
The news broke an hour before the season’s trade deadline, with many commentators calling San Francisco’s acquisition of the 2020 Defensive Rookie Of The Year a steal as it only cost them a compensatory third round pick in next year’s draft.
The trade also reunites two defensive ends from the 2018 Rose Bowl champion Ohio State Buckeyes, Young and Nick Bosa, and gives 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek another edge-rushing option in an already talent-stacked line.
But as ESPN commentator Marcus Spears put it after the trade, Young isn’t a luxury for the 49ers, he’s a need. Last year the defense ranked number one in the NFL. After losing three games in a row, it’s currently ranked 9th, having allowed 14 touchdowns and an average of 315 offensive yards through week 8 of the season. Can the addition of Young right the 49ers’ sinking ship like the trade for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders did in 2019?
Specifically, San Francisco’s defensive line needs help. Once one of the most dominating units in the NFL, Kocurek’s crew dropped off in production this year. They’re 24th in quarterback pressures and 27th in sacks, despite having talent like Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead and recently-acquired edge rusher Randy Gregory. Bosa, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, has seen an extreme drop off in production, especially in terms of sacks. Last year, after eight games, Bosa had 9.5 sacks. This year, he only has three.
Young could be a game changer for the D- line as he’s already racked up five sacks in six games and 9 QB hits this season with the Washington Commanders. Also, Young is the kind of talent that requires double teams, so it will take resources to block him. More than one player fending off Young means other stars like Bosa or Hargrave would face beatable one-on-ones and would have an easier time hitting the quarterback.
Even if Young continues to have a 2019-like season, however, the defensive line isn’t the only part of the defense that’s falling short. Great defenses are complimentary, with the front and the secondary working in sync. As Kyle Shanahan recently explained, the defense shuts down pass plays by having the secondary cut off the quarterback’s first read, creating time for the pass rushers to reach the quarterback. This has not been the case the past two games, where pocket passers Kirk Cousins and Joe Burrow sliced up the defense with one quick pass after another.
The secondary has regressed. Mooney Ward, the team’s highly-paid veteran cornerback, went from being a dependable cover corner to a vulnerable target, and opposing offenses have noticed. According to Pro-Football-reference.com, Ward was targeted 95 times over 17 games last year and gave up 54 catches on those throws, good for a 56.8 percent completion rate. All told, he ended up allowing 612 yards. This year, over the past eight games, he’s already been targeted 55 times and given up 33 receptions for a 60% completion rate - his worst such rate since his rookie year. He’s also already given up 420 yards over those 8 games. If this continues, Ward will give up a career-worst 800 (ish) yards this season.
Ward isn’t the only leaky 49er defensive back this season. Corner Isaiah Oliver, who joined the team this summer, is averaging an 80.5% completion rate – far and above his worst over his six year career. Last year he allowed 69 percent of passes to be completed, but he gave up just 267 yards over 12 games. As of the bye week, he’s already given up 242 yards and had four games with 100 completion rates on multiple targets.
With both sides of the 49ers’ defense falling short, first year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks receives the most criticism. Former 49ers Donte Whitner and Richard Sherman have used their platforms to air their grievances with the state of the defense, with Sherman going as far as to say Wilks is “not getting the job done, and that’s pretty evident.” While it could be debated whether or not Wilks’s leadership is truly at fault for the defense’s drop off, there are a lot of questions surrounding his tenure that the team needs to answer.
Why is Ward regressing so much under your leadership? Why did you bring in Isaiah Oliver and how could you honestly say that having him on the team was a luxury? How can your secondary be so bad after you’ve been a defensive backs coach for most of your long NFL career?
It remains to be seen if the Chase Young trade will help the 49ers get over the hump for a championship. They clearly needed to find some way to improve their underwhelming pass rush, and he cost the 49ers almost nothing to acquire. He might not make our Super Bowl dreams come true, but everyone can appreciate a good deal on a rental.