The 49ers cornerback trio has been superb, but face their most difficult challenge yet Sunday
By Insidethe49|Published On: November 30th, 2023 at 12:32 PM|
Ambry Thomas has been a revelation through three games.
The 49ers pass rush has received the bulk of the headlines during their three-game winning streak. Chase Young has helped unlock moving Nick Bosa around the defensive line. Bosa has five sacks and an incredible 11 quarterback hits since the bye week.
The secondary isn’t getting nearly enough credit.
If we just think in terms of production, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for the second-fewest yards of the season and the fewest completions of the season in Week 10 against the Niners.
The following week, Buccaneers’ quarterback Baker Mayfield had surpassed 250 passing yards in each of his previous two games while averaging north of nine yards per attempt. Against San Francisco, Baker threw for 246 yards on 5.5 yards per attempt.
Then, last week, Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith, who had thrown for nearly 400 yards just two weeks prior, had 18 completions for 180 yards.
The trio of Charvarius Ward, Ambry Thomas, and Deommodore Lenoir have been closer to lockdown than formidable.
Since the bye week, Ward has been targeted 24 times. He’s given up ten receptions for an average of 4.7 yards per target. If that were extrapolated for an entire season, Mooney would be in the top-5 among all cornerbacks in the NFL.
Ward has gotten his hands on six passes since then. What makes his performance even more eye-popping is that Mooney has been following the likes of DK Metcalf and Mike Evans, or even Christian Kirk at times, when they went into the slot.
But he’s not the only 49er corner making plays on the ball. Thomas has been a revelation. Ambry has been targeted 12 times since becoming a “starter.” He’s allowed seven receptions, but for an average of 3.5 yards per target.
Thomas’s confidence level is palpable. You’re not intercepting a Tyler Lockett route if you don’t trust yourself.
Kyle Shanahan mentioned Thomas’s maturity as a reason for his improvement:
“I’ve seen him every day throughout this whole season. I think even going back to training camp in this offseason, I think a lot clicked for him. I think it’s always tough. I go back to him a lot his first year. When guys get thrown in positions their first year and stuff because of injuries and things they are not quite ready for and then they still have some success I think it’s always a little harder for the reality of the next year and I think he hit that step back.
But I thought, talking about this last year, he learned so much and you could see him this offseason how improved and how much more mature he was in terms of just day in and day out and consistent. I know he hasn’t got all his ops throughout the year, which could be frustrating, but that’s what’s been so cool about him is he never felt bad for himself or anything. He just kept working like he did in camp and that’s why he is a better player each and every week.”
Ward and Thomas are challenging every throw. They’re also not allowing the big play.
Both players have allowed a negative EPA per target. Thomas has allowed the seventh-lowest number among all cornerbacks during this three-game stretch. He looks like he belongs.
Deommodore Lenoir should be viewed as the “glue guy” that made these changes possible. With the way coverages play out in the NFL these days, a slot fade is the most susceptible route. Lenoir gave one up last week on what turned out to be a remarkable one-handed catch by the receiver, but if that’s once a game, you can live with that.
Shanahan is happy with how Lenoir has performed:
“Yeah, I can’t say enough about Demo. Demo has been so good on the outside and when we ask him to go inside, he goes in there and plays the exact same way. Wherever Demo stays at, he always gets really good at it. We need him in both areas, which puts a lot of stress on him, but I can’t tell you how happy I’ve been with his style of play. I know we’ve had to switch him for some key situations, but he keeps getting better and better at those spots.”
OK, you three. You passed the test against the Jaguars. You shut down Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. And you all but erased the trio of Seahawks receivers. Good job, good effort. Now your reward is arguably the best receiver duo in the NFL in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith.
Brown had a streak this season where he had six games in a row of more than 100 yards in a game. He is one of the five to seven best receivers in the NFL. Smith isn’t far behind. He has a couple of 100-yard performances this season, with two of 99 yards. Smith is a speedster where I’d worry about if Lenoir had to run with in the slot.
Matchup wise, Mooney on Brown and Thomas on Smith make the most sense stylistically for the 49ers. But this isn’t a video game and the Eagles are going to move their best players around to put them in favorable situations.
When it comes to challenges, this will be the biggest one to day for the 49ers secondary. They’ve been tremendous three games in a row, but it’ll need to be four if the Niners intend to be victorious in Week 13.