49ers: Are Johnson and Robinson the Achilles heel of the Defense?

Niners Live is letting the cat out the bag once again after exposing the cold hard truth about Cornerback K’waun Williams and Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. It’s only right that we double back and highlight Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson and ask the question: Are Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinsons’ struggles in coverage the Achilles heel of this defense?

 

How we got here

Coming into the 2017 season the San Francisco 49ers and Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh looked to establish a new identity of toughness and physicality. Enter the 6’2 and 200-pound Dontae Johnson and 6’1 and 177-pound Rashard Robinson who both possessed the size and skill to become a force to be reckoned with.

Things looked promising at the end of the 2016 season for Robinson who seemed to be coming into his own, recording 28 tackles, eight passes defended, and one interception in six starts. With such a strong showing, Robinson came into the 2017 season as a clear-cut candidate to fill one of the starting slots at cornerback.

He’s a dog. I like him,” Saleh said (via the team’s website). “He does not want to get beat. Every rep is so important to him. He doesn’t care who he’s going against. The only question was who would prove themselves worthy and step up to win the other starting job? Back on May 20, 2017, Niners Live narrowed the matchup down to be Dontae Johnson vs. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. Johnson eventually emerged as the winner.   

2017 season recap: Through seven weeks the 49ers’ defense is ranked 29th in total defense in the NFL, surrendering 26.6 pts per game and giving up 258.6 yards through the air, 12 passing touchdowns and a 64.7 percent completion percentage. Johnson and Robinson, between the two of them, have 10 passes defended, only one interception and accounted for six pass interference calls (four by Robinson) on the season (espn.com).

Are Johnson and Robinson’s struggles in coverage the Achilles heel of this Defense?

Through seven weeks per Pro Football Focus, the coverage grade for Robinson stands at an Overall 40.5, 42.3 in coverage, 74.2 in run defense, 59.1 in pass rush, in 463 total snaps, which ranks him 106th overall in the NFL. Johnson’s Overall grade comes in at 47.6, 49.0 in coverage, 34.8 in run defense, and 60.0 in pass rush, in 491 total snaps, ranking him as the 86th corner in the NFL. 

I guess it’s no surprise that Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon has started to work his way into the rotation which Robert Saleh, in a recent interview, said is not an indictment on the cornerback play, but more a reward for how hard he has worked in practice. However, the rookie hasn’t seemed to fare much better in his opportunities, having yet to register a pass defense and coming in so far with an overall 44.8 grade, 44.9 in coverage, 48.6 in run defense, 60.0 in pass rush, in 75 total snaps.

To make matters worse, the secondary has given up 100-yard receivers the last few weeks consecutively. In week three against the L.A Rams, Robert Woods accounted for six receptions, 108 yards, to go along with Sammy Watkins six receptions, 106 yards. Week four against the Arizona Cardinals Jaron Brown accounted for eight receptions for 105 yards. Week five against the Indianapolis Colts T.Y Hilton amassed seven receptions for 177 yards, and against the Washington Redskins Chris Thompson racked up 105 yards on four receptions. It’s clear that opposing Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers are simply licking their chops at a chance to pad their stats against these cornerbacks while opposing coaches have absolutely no fear of putting the ball in the air and betting that their guys will win more times than not.

Yes, you cannot solely hold the defensive backs accountable for the overall struggles that the defense has encountered, as the front seven has also been inconsistent in their efforts to create consistent pressure. However, it seems that as the weeks go by this position has shown a clear sign of regression and lack of discipline which must be a cause for concern. Will the 49ers once again need to put cornerback at the top of their priority list come the 2018 draft? Stay tuned to the saga of the 2017 season to see how this story develops.

Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. AuthorIrvin Johnson Staff Writer at Niners Live. Co-Author, Content Creator, Editor Sequoia Sims.