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The area in which most believe the 49ers have the most room for improvement might actually be in danger of the largest decline in production.
We’re talking about the team’s pass defense.
Only one team in the NFL has been better each of the past two regular seasons in pass defense. And it’s probably no surprise that team is the Seattle Seahawks.
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Last season, the opposition managed a lowly 76.4 passer rating against the 49ers. It was the fourth-best pass defense in the NFL.
In 2012, the 49ers were sixth in the NFL in opponent passer rating at 78.0. The Seahawks were the only team that finished ahead of the 49ers both seasons.
Strong safety Donte Whitner had an outstanding season – probably his best – in pass coverage last season. Cornerback Tarell Brown had another solid season before sustaining fractured ribs and cartilage damage late in the season. Cornerback Carlos Rogers was up and down, but he graded near the top of the NFL when it came to covering the slot receiver, according to Pro Football Focus.
The pass defense was not as effective in the past two postseasons, however. In the playoffs after the 2012 season, the 49ers ranked ninth out of 12 teams with a 109.5 passer rating allowed. There were blown coverages and the pass rush was ineffective while Aldon Smith and Justin Smith were limited due to injuries.
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In this past postseason, the 49ers were eighth with an opponent passer rating of 94.1. The defense gave up two big plays against Seattle in the NFC Championship game. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson bought 11 seconds scrambling around and hit Doug Baldwin for a 51-yard pass against Whitner. And Wilson took advantage of a free play when Aldon Smith jumped offside and the pass rush stopped. Rogers was stride-for-stride with Jermaine Kearse but could not prevent a 35-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
Whitner and Brown are expected to hit the free-agent market on Tuesday at 1 p.m. (PT). And Rogers does not figure to return to the 49ers unless he accepts a dramatic pay cut from his scheduled $6.6 million contract.
Currently, Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver could be in line as the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks. Eric Reid will start at free safety, with veterans Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman also on the roster. The 49ers can be expected to invest draft picks in the secondary. The 49ers have 12 draft picks, including one compensatory selection. Most believe it's a strong crop of draft-eligible defensive backs.