Following an impressive win over Minnesota to start the 2015 season, an air of optimism surrounded the young 49ers defense.
Then came Ben Roethlisberger.
The veteran quarterback and his speedy receiving corps — highlighted by dynamic WR Antonio Brown — decimated the 49ers secondary to the tune of 369 receiving yards and three touchdowns through the air while averaging an astonishing 17.6 yards per catch.
By the end of the second quarter, the 49ers had surrendered more passing yards than they did against Minnesota. And by the sound of the final merciful whistle, San Francisco had allowed 43 total points to Pittsburgh, the most the franchise has ever given up against the Steelers.
It wasn’t just a beatdown, it was a reality check. But like any experiment, newly-appointed defensive coordinator Eric Mangini knows there will be trial and error before results are shown. Speaking to the media, Mangini had this to say about his evolving defensive group on Thursday:
“There really is a growth that goes into any defense, because I’m learning about the guys, the coaches are learning about the guys, they are learning about us. We’re figuring out as we go things we do really well, things we don’t do as well, and even from a game-planning perspective, from an installation perspective, from a practice perspective, each week it’s going to get better. It’s a group of guys that are, for the most part, new to each other.”
Mangini’s grounded comments serve as a guide of what to expect from this defensive group: A lot of individual talent trying to figure out how to be a singular and impactful entity before our very eyes.
The 49ers won’t be as bad as they were last Sunday against a veteran Steelers squad. But Roethlisberger and Brown served up a prime example of the types of growing pains that this young group can expect to encounter while learning defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s new scheme.
What’s important now is how the group responds to such a trouncing. Ahead of a matchup this Sunday against an Arizona Cardinals team that is coming off a 300-yard, 48-point demolition of the Chicago Bears in Week 2, Mangini said his group is doing all they can to avoid a second straight embarrassment:
“I think the group as a whole has responded really well. They came in, it was a sense of purpose to make sure we saw what the problems were, what we had to get fixed, where we could improve collectively and then where each guy could improve individually. And, I’ve really respected the way that they came back and approached it and then came out yesterday in practice and I expect another good practice here today. That’s really what you look for is OK, how are we going to respond now in light of this.”
The talent is there for San Francisco, there’s no denying that. Rookies like Jaquiski Tartt, Arik Armstead and Eli Harold, and young contributors like CBs Kenneth Acker and Keith Reiser look to revamp the 49ers defensive unit for the foreseeable future.
And let’s be real, nobody could have expected Acker to shutdown such an elite receiver like Brown in just his second career start, could they? But the NFL is an unforgiving league, and after a mass exodus of veterans across the defensive spectrum, the 49ers will have to figure out their defense sooner rather than later.