49ers rush defense leads failing midseason report card

The San Francisco 49ers are well on their way to another high draft pick with a 1-6 record through their Week 8 bye.

And since the immediate future likely holds little to look forward to, let’s instead take a look back at how the team’s defensive unit has performed up to the midway point in the season.

Defensive line

The play of the defensive line is probably the only thing that can make fans clamor for the days of having Jim Tomsula around.

Despite having invested consecutive first-round picks in Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner over the last two years, the 49ers’ defensive line has been one of the most porous groups in the NFL through the first seven games of the season.

The team currently ranks dead last in the league in rushing defense, surrendering a staggering 185.1 yards per game to its opposition’s run game.

Sure, the 49ers have had to face the likes of Ezekiel Elliot, David Johnson and LeSean McCoy — all of whom rushed for over 100 yards — but the team hasn’t had success slowing down lesser-known names either.

Case in point: Jacquizz Rodgers — the Buccaneers’s third-string running back — torched the 49ers for a season-high 154 yards on 26 carries in a 34-17 Tampa Bay win in Week 7. Carolina’s Fozzy Whittaker also reached the 100-yard mark in Week 2, and Seattle’s Christine Michael reached a season-high 106-yards against the team the following week.

In fact, the only team that hasn’t had a 100-plus yard rushing day against the 49ers was the Los Angeles Rams, when the 49ers were able to bottle up Todd Gurley for just 47 yards in their home opener.

To put it bluntly, this team cannot stop the run.

But it’s not Chip Kelly’s fault. It’s not new line coach Jerry Azzinaro’s fault, either. The group has just underperformed.

Missed tackles and the inability to shed blocks are the most glaring culprits. And the key perpetrators are both Buckner and Armstead.

Buckner has been a versatile player for the 49ers, stepping in during his rookie season to play almost non-stop during the defenses’ many trips on the turf. But the first-year product has had trouble shedding NFL-caliber blockers, allowing opposing backs to scamper by his 6-foot-7 frame.

Buckner has also had trouble handling double-teams in his rookie season. This was to be expected, as the athletic Buckner was drafted more for his technique than for his brute strength, but it’s also something that should get better with time.

Armstead has had his share of problems both in the run and getting pressure as well. While Armstead is tied with LB Ahmad Brooks for the team lead in sacks at 2.5, the second-year product hasn’t been as disruptive in the pass rush as the 49ers would have hoped.

Armstead has played through a lingering shoulder issue — one that flared up again during their last contest against Tampa Bay — and you have to wonder how much it has affected his play.

The young player’s struggles have been exaggerated by the team’s lack of options at nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. Mike Purcell has been anything but productive, Quinton Dial is undersized, Glenn Dorsey is yet to fully recover from an ACL injury, and the team just released Ian Williams on an injury settlement.

Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has been in the hot seat for the defensive failings of the 49ers as of late, but unless the players along the line can start to correct their individual mistakes, there’s not much anyone else can do for this beleaguered group.

LINEBACKERS

Injuries at inside linebacker continue to haunt the 49ers.

The first blow occurred when the team lost Ray-Ray Armstrong to a pectoral injury during the Week 2 loss in Carolina. Armstrong was playing well, but the 49ers looked to be able to shake it off.

The next punch was a knockout.

With the loss of NaVorro Bowman to a season-ending achilles injury, the 49ers’ starting inside linebackers group consists of a career special teams player (Nick Bellore) and a rotation of Michael Wilhoite or Gerald Hodges, both of whom are sufficiently average at best.

And the results are evident.

Like a vicious circle, the 49ers’ poor defensive line play has exposed the weaknesses of their depleted linebackers group, and the lack of talent at the linebacker position has helped to exaggerate the defensive line’s run blocking woes.

But what can the 49ers do at this point except prepare for next season?

The team has occasionally used DB Jaquiski Tartt as a third-linebacker in exotic packages, but the second-year product is not viable long-term at the position. The only other true inside linebacker on the roster is Stanford’s Shayne Skov, who is more of a depth option than a possible fix for the 49ers.

It is worth noting that San Francisco was unwilling to part with a third-round pick in order to land Jamie Collins from New England, despite being so depleted. Collins would have to be re-signed next year to a new contract, but money is the one thing the 49ers have a lot of at this point.

Perhaps Baalke is looking to invest in a cheaper option in the draft or free agency? Or maybe there’s just no fixing this group. And with the 49ers’ growing notoriety for being unable to retain free agents, maybe Baalke wasn’t willing to gamble on the franchise’s ability to re-sign a big-name player, which is concerning on a different level.

All fans can do now is hope Bowman comes back healthy and ready to anchor the unit for next season.

At the outside linebacker position, Aaron Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Tank Carradine are still on the team. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, considering the group has combined for just 3.5 sacks. Brooks owns 2.5 of those.

SECONDARY

Finally, a place to be optimistic.

The 49ers’ secondary hasn’t exactly been a model of health as of late, but at its peak, it boasted a pair of young and promising cornerbacks in Jimmie Ward and Rashard Robinson.

Prior to his quad injury, the former first-round pick Ward had impressed in his starting role since moving from the slot to outside. Ward looked like the 49ers’ best corner opposite Tramaine Brock, making a leap in play that finally justified his first-round draft pick status.

Ward is, again, injured right now. But the good news is it doesn’t have anything to do with his surgically-repaired foot that has ailed him in the past. Ward should be back soon, giving the 49ers a high-caliber corner to help anchor a porous defense.

But Ward’s fill-in has been pretty darn good in the meantime.

First-year corner Rashard Robinson — taken in the fourth-round of this year’s draft — has looked every bit worth his price tag while manning the starting duties on the outside.

Robinson has struggled in covering the run with his slim frame, but the athletic corner has used those same measurables to blanket opposing receivers. Barring the game against Tampa Bay, where he was picked on by the oversized Mike Evans, Robinson has excelled in coverage for San Francisco.

The 21-year old has, thus far, seemed removed from his off-field struggles that led to an early dismissal from LSU. If he can keep up both his good play and reformed personality, it looks like the 49ers may have gotten a bargain for a starter-of-the-future in Robinson.

At just 21, Robinson still has a lot to learn in the NFL. If he can put on weight, then his ability to play the run should improve as well. But the early signs are encouraging. It almost makes you feel better knowing he was taken two picks ahead of Dak Prescott. Almost.

The other members of the secondary have been, at best, ordinary. Brock has been healthy and decent in coverage, but hasn’t done much to impress otherwise.

The safety tandem of Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea has been average as well. With a $5.25 million base salary for next year, the 49ers may find it best to simply release Bethea and slot in Tartt opposite Reid for next season.

Bethea has brought veteran presence to the young 49ers, but his level of play hasn’t merited holding on to him at that price tag. Besides, Tartt needs a place to play, and Baalke needs to look like he hasn’t wasted any more picks than he already has.

Speaking of Baalke picks, Will Redmond’s window to play has opened up after the third-round pick was placed on IR early in September. The 49ers never really got a look at what they got with Redmond, since it was clear that he never really recovered from his ACL tear.

Redmond likely won’t be a factor this year, but if he can use the rest of the season as a way to restrengthen his knee and raise his game to an NFL-caliber of play, the 49ers may have a trio of talented young cornerbacks for next season.

BOTTOM LINE

At this point, the 49ers’ decimated defense is one of the worst in the NFL. And there’s no real chance of fixing that anytime soon. San Francisco just don’t have the healthy bodies necessary, and O’Neil just doesn’t seem like the guy who knows how to figure out how to use what little he has left in the tank.

It’s a popular thing to do these days, but all I can sell you on is the future of the team.

Next year, Buckner will be a little bit older, wiser and stronger. Same with Armstead. The 49ers actually have built a solid young cornerback group, and hopefully Bowman comes back healthy alongside either a high draft pick, or a free agent acquisition. And maybe they’ll actually have a nose tackle to plug the lanes in a 3-4 scheme.

All of that doesn’t sound like the fearsome defense they once were. But it doesn’t sound bad either.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.